US wildfires: 500,000 forced to flee in Oregon as west coast battles raging fires

At least 15 people were killed by the wildfires

Officials in Oregon ordered half a million people to evacuate their homes as deadly wildfires raged along the US west coast, impacting California, Oregon and Washington state.

Under a hazy sky illuminated red by the nearby flames, mask-clad residents in Oregon packed their belongings and fled after officials issued the mandatory evacuation order affecting nearly 10 per cent of the state's population.

A statement from Oregon officials said the number of people being asked to leave "continues to grow".

"Firefighters are prioritising life safety as they battle a record 900,000 acres of wildfires," they said.

Oregon has endured the brunt of the fires spreading along the west coast, with nearly 100 fires in the state.

Governor Kate Brown said that "in the last 10 years, we see an average of 500,000 acres burn in an entire year. We've seen that nearly double in the past three days."

Around 3,000 firefighters have been battling the fires, but officials say twice as many are needed to bring the flames under control.

At least five communities in Oregon have been gutted by the fires, leaving many displaced, including immigrants with few resources to draw on.

Artemio Guterrez had his mobile home reduced to rubble. As he surveyed the damage and tried to salvage what he could, his children sat in the back of his pickup truck waiting quietly. The single father of four told the Associated Press he had been at work when he saw thick smoke spreading through Rogue River Valley. He raced home just in time to snatch his kids from the trailer park where they live alongside dozens of other Mexican families. They got out with just the clothes on their backs.

“I’m going to start all over again. It’s not easy but it’s not impossible either. You have to be a little tough in situations like this,” said Mr Guterrez, who had just returned from his mother’s funeral in Mexico.

Entire mobile home parks with many units occupied by Mexican immigrants who worked in nearby vineyards or doing construction were reduced to ash in Phoenix and nearby Talent.

Meanwhile, the death toll from the wildfires continued to climb, with four deaths reported in Oregon, 10 in California, and one in Washington state – a one-year-old boy.

California's toll could rise as rescuers search for 16 people missing after a blaze known as the North Complex fire tore through the small town of Berry Creek.

Among those unaccounted for were Sandy Butler and her husband, who had called their son to say they were going to try to escape the flames by finding shelter near a pond.

“We’re still hoping and praying for good news,” said Jessica Fallon, who has two children with the Butlers' grandson and considers them her own grandparents. “Everything is replaceable, but not my grandparents’ lives. I’d rather lose everything than those two. They kind of held the family together.”

Ms Fallon said she had been peppering hospitals with phone calls in search of her grandparents. There was no word of them as of late Thursday night.

Only a day or two earlier, the North Complex fire tore through California's Sierra Nevada foothills so quickly that fire crews were nearly engulfed and locals fled for their lives to the nearby pond. The town of Berry Creek, with a population 525, was gutted.

Deputies and detectives were searching for human remains as they made their way into devastated areas with a team of anthropologists from Chico State University, Captain Derek Bell of the Butte County sheriff's office said on Thursday.

At least four people with critical burns were hospitalised.

More than 2,000 homes and other buildings were burned in the fire, which began several weeks ago as a lightning-sparked collection of blazes north-east of San Francisco.

The final death toll is expected to be much higher. Damage assessment teams planned to begin a methodical search of the burned areas on Friday.

The speed and ferocity of the fire astonished observers, even those who remembered a blaze only two years earlier that killed about 85 people and devastated the town of Paradise, a few kilometres away from the current blaze.

Residents jammed the main road out of town on Wednesday amid falling ash and red skies. Authorities lifted an evacuation warning for Paradise on Thursday but authorities urged people to remain alert.

The North Complex fire that exploded earlier in the week was advancing more slowly on Friday after the winds eased and smoke from the blaze shaded the area and lowered the temperature, allowing firefighters to make progress, authorities said.

However, the smoke made for poor visibility and fire helicopters could not fly Thursday.

In most parts of the state, red-flag warnings of extreme fire danger because of hot, dry weather or gusty winds were lifted.

“It’s a historic season on top of a historic season that replaced a historic season. We just keep setting new precedents, and then we keep destroying them,” said Sean Norman, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

President Donald Trump spoke with Governor Gavin Newsom “to express his condolences for the loss of life and reiterate the administration’s full support to help those on the front lines of the fires”, according to White House spokesman Judd Deere.

Updated: September 11, 2020 02:11 PM


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