By Sharon Bernstein and Andrew Hay
(Reuters) – Unprecedented wildfires in Oregon have all but destroyed five small towns and a record number of deaths is feared, Governor Kate Brown said on Wednesday, as families began to report casualties.
High winds and heat are stoking nearly 100 wildfires across the U.S. West. Oregon is the worst-hit state as an area twice the size of New York City burns.
The central Oregon community of Detroit in the hard-hit Santiam Valley, as well as Blue River and Vida in coastal Lane County, and Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon were substantially destroyed, Brown told a news conference.
A 12-year-old boy and his grandmother died in a wildfire burning near the Santiam Valley community of Lyons, about 50 miles south of Portland, KOIN6 news reported, citing the family, who said the boy’s mother was in critical condition.
“This could be the greatest loss in human lives and property due to wildfire in our state’s history,” Brown said.
The governor gave no indication of how many people may have died, but one of Oregon’s most deadly blazes was in 1936 when a fire destroyed the city of Brandon and killed 13 people.
Brown talked of rescuers saving people’s lives by pulling them from rivers where they took refuge from flames.
Firefighters retreated from uncontrollable blazes that forced tens of thousands to evacuate homes, some with half an hour’s notice.
“It was like driving through hell,” Jody Evans told local television station NewsChannel21 after a midnight evacuation from Detroit, about 50 miles (80 km) west of Salem. Evans fled the largest blaze in Oregon, known as the Beachie Fire, which threatened to join up with another wildfire to the west known as the Lionshead Fire.
To the south, parts of Medford, a popular retirement location with over 80,000 residents, were under evacuation orders or warnings as a growing wildfire closed a section of Interstate 5, the primary north-south highway in the West.
As the fire moved north to Medford it heavily damaged Talent with about 6,000 residents and Phoenix, with around 5,000, according to local police.
Brown saw no respite in the near term and requested a federal emergency declaration for the state.
“Winds continue to feed these fires and push them into our towns and cities,” she said, adding that thousands more Oregonians would need to evacuate over the next several hours.
Climate scientists blame global warming for extreme wet and dry seasons in the U.S. West that have caused grasses and scrub to flourish then dry out, leaving abundant fuel for fires.
In Oregon, winds are driving down the slopes of the Cascade Mountains to fan fires burning through parched forests.
“Absolutely no area in the state is free from fire,” said Doug Graf, chief of fire protection for the Oregon Department of Forestry.
In California, all 18 National Forests were closed due to “unprecedented and historic fire conditions.”
In the north of the state tens of thousands of people were told to be ready to evacuate around Oroville, about 50 miles north of Sacramento, as “Diablo” winds drove nearby wildfires.
To the south, the Creek Fire, about 35 miles (56 km) north of Fresno, tore through the Sierra National Forest, which was susceptible due to drought and bark beetle damage, destroying over 360 homes and structures.
“This fire is just burning at an explosive rate,” said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for California’s state fire authority. “You add the winds, the dry conditions, the hot temperatures, it’s the perfect recipe.”
Across the United States wildfires have burned nearly 4.7 million acres in 2020, the highest year-to-date area since 2018, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Most of the fires are in western states, where 17 new large blazes were reported on Wednesday, bringing the total to 96, which have burned more than 3.4 million acres – an area nearly the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut.
(Reporting by Andrew Hay and Sharon Bernstein; additional reporting by Steve Gorman; editing by Bill Tarrant, Cynthia Osterman and Leslie Adler)