Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 27 October 2020

Environment

US fires: death toll climbs to 33 on charred West Coast

Firefighters continue to battle almost 100 blazes

Most of the dozens of people reported missing after a devastating blaze in southern Oregon have been accounted for, authorities said at the weekend as crews battled wildfires that have killed at least 33, from California to Washington state.

The flames up and down the West Coast have destroyed neighbourhoods, leaving nothing but charred rubble and burnt-out cars.

They forced tens of thousands to flee and cast a shroud of smoke that has given Seattle, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, some of the worst air pollution in the world.

Firefighters are continuing to battle almost 100 wildfires, which have been some of the largest on record and have scorched more than 1.8 million hectares, CNN reported.

The smoke filled the air with an acrid metallic smell and spread to nearby states.

While making it difficult to breathe, it helped firefighters by blocking the sun and turning the weather cooler as they tried to get a handle on the blazes, which were slowing in some places.

But warnings of low moisture and strong winds have stoked fears that the fires might worsen.

Search and rescue teams with dogs were sent across the blackened ruins of southern Oregon towns on Sunday.

Lexi Soulios, her husband and son were afraid they would have to move to safety for a second time because of the weather.

They left their small southern Oregon town of Talent last week when they saw a “big, huge flow of dark smoke coming up”, then went past roadblocks Friday to pick through the charred ruins of their home.

A helicopter makes drops water over the Bobcat fire, burning in the Angeles National Forest, near Arcadia, California, USA, September 13, 2020. According to reports, the Bobcat fire has burnt over 31,000 acres of forest. EPA
A helicopter makes drops water over the Bobcat fire, burning in the Angeles National Forest, near Arcadia, California, USA, September 13, 2020. According to reports, the Bobcat fire has burnt over 31,000 acres of forest. EPA

While they are staying farther south in Ashland, known for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, she said that the forecast could mean they were on the move again.

“So this isn’t over yet but we just had the car checked so we feel prepared,” Ms Soulios said.

Authorities last week reported that up to 50 people could be missing after a wildfire in the Ashland area.

But the Jackson County sheriff’s office said late on Saturday that four people had died in the blaze and that the number of missing was down to one.

At least 10 people have been killed in the past week throughout Oregon and 40,000 people fled their homes in the state.

Officials have said more people are missing from other fires, and the number of deaths is likely to rise.

There were 34 fires burning in Oregon as of Sunday morning, the state's office of emergency management website said.

In California, 22 people have died, and one in Washington state. Thousands of homes and other buildings have burned.

Barbara Bettison, 25, left her farm among the trees and fields of Eagle Creek, outside Portland, when a sheriff’s deputy knocked on her door on Tuesday.

They drove away on a road that became an ominous dividing line, with blue skies on one side and the other filled with black and brown smoke.

Ms Bettison took shelter at an Elks Lodge near Portland, where evacuees wrapped themselves in blankets and set up tents out back.

A member of a search and rescue team from Salt Lake City, including a canine named Kya, look for victims through gutted homes in the aftermath of the Almeda fire in Talent, Oregon, US, September 13, 2020. REUTERS
A member of a search and rescue team from Salt Lake City, including a canine named Kya, look for victims through gutted homes in the aftermath of the Almeda fire in Talent, Oregon, US, September 13, 2020. REUTERS

“It’s terrifying. We’ve never had any form of natural disaster,” she said.

Ms Bettison, a UPS driver, was able to get out with her chickens, rabbits and cats.

She has not been back but neighbours said it was so smoky they could not see their hands in front of their faces.

“I’m hoping there has not been too much damage because it would break my heart,” Ms Bettison said.

Many scientific studies have linked bigger wildfires in the US to global warming from the burning of fossil fuels.

The Democratic governors of all three states say the fires are a consequence of climate change, taking aim at US President Donald Trump ahead of his visit in Monday to California for a fire briefing.

“It is maddening right now that when we have this cosmic challenge to our communities, with the entire West Coast of the United States on fire, to have a president to deny that these are not just wildfires, these are climate fires,” Washington Governor Jay Inslee told ABC on Sunday.

At a rally in Nevada, Mr Trump blamed the fires on inadequate forest management.

Firefighter Steve McAdoo has run from one blaze to another in Oregon for six days, seeing buildings burn and trees light up like candles.

“We lost track of time because you can’t see the sun and you’ve been up for so many days,” Mr McAdoo said. “Forty-eight to 72 hours non-stop, you feel like you’re in a dream.”

As he and his team fought the fires, he worried about his wife and daughter at home just kilometres away.

They left safely but at times he could communicate with them only in one-word text messages: “Busy.”

Mr McAdoo and other firefighters got their first real break on Sunday to take showers, shave and check their equipment.

And although it is a faint shadow of its usual self, he can finally see the sun.

“It’s nice today to at least see the dot in the sky,” Mr McAdoo said.

Updated: September 14, 2020 09:36 AM

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