Oregon firefighters hope to start pushing back on dozens of deadly blazes that have scorched 900,000 acres, killed at least three people, destroyed entire towns and forced up to 500,000 residents to evacuate their homes.
"Today marks what we hope is the final day of the wind event," Gov. Kate Brown said during a press briefing Thursday afternoon on the 33 fires burning from the Oregon Coast to the borders of Idaho, California and Washington.
The Office of Emergency Management announced Thursday evening that large portions of populous Clackamas County were being evacuated, pushing the number of people who have been told to leave their homes from about 40,000 at noon Thursday to 500,000 by evening.
"The situation continues to change rapidly," said Paula Fasano Negele, an OEM spokeswoman in Salem.
Fires were still pushing west and north in Clackamas and Marion counties, where new evacuations of the town of Molalla were announced during the press conference. Thursday evening the evacuations were expanded to larger portions of the county with a population of 420,000.
The 121,000-acre Riverside and 185,000-acre Santiam/Beachie Creek fires are likely to merge southwest of the Portland metro area, making it the biggest and most dangerous blaze entirely within Oregon. The National Guard moved two HH-60M Black Hawk helicopters to Hillsboro to be ready to aid with aerial fire retardant drops or medical evacuations.
Brown said the fires were unprecedented in the state's history, with totals nearing 900,000 acres burned. Over the past decade, the state has seen an average of 500,000 acres burn each year.
"We've seen nearly double that in the last three days," she said. "Folks are really scared and looking for information."
The weather continues to be unpredictable and the next 24 hours will tell if firefighters can switch from evacuations to move back into river valleys on the west side of the Cascades. Fires along the Santiam, McKenzie and Rogue rivers were pushed by up to 50-mile-per-hour winds. Wind pushed flames as much as 55 miles west from the crest of the Cascades in two days, the fires stopping just short of the suburbs on the east side of Interstate 5 near Salem and Eugene.
It is only when firefighters can counterattack and get into heavily damaged areas will the full scope of the human and property damage be known.
"We know there are fatalities," Brown said. State officials declined to estimate the possible number of dead or amount of property damage.
The Marion County Sheriff's Office confirmed Thursday that Wyatt Tofte, 12 and his grandmother, Peggy Mosso, 71, had died in Lyons when the Santiam Fire swept through their neighborhood. Wyatt's mother, Angela Mosso, 45, survived the fire and was taken to Legacy Emanuel Hospital Burn Center in Portland with critical injuries.
The Alameda Fire that burned over 600 homes in Phoenix and Talent started just north of Ashland. Jackson County Sheriff Sheriff Nate Sickler told the Medford Mail-Tribune on Thursday that human remains have been found at a BMX park near the point where the fire is believed to have been started. A criminal investigation is underway.
Doug Grafe with the Oregon Department of Forestry said about 3,000 firefighters were fighting blazes in Oregon. Aided by fire teams from Utah, Oregon National Guard fire teams being mobilized, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, possible active duty Army firefighters sent by the Pentagon, and Oregon Department of Corrections firefighting teams utilizing volunteer prisoners, Grafe said he hoped the state would have double the current force fighting fires.
With the driest conditions and largest amount of underbrush in state forests in three decades, new fires remain a distinct possibility at least until rains arrive, hopefully by mid-October.
Officials said they were holding the line of the 145,000-acre Holiday Farm Fire east of Eugene in the McKenzie River Valley. Three 125-soldier National Guard firefighting teams will be sent in coming days. The 126,000-acre Lionshead Fire near Salem has been held back.
Grafe said progress was being made on the Alameda Fire, just south of Medford. The fire was relatively small compared to other blazes — about 6,000 acres — but swept through a densely populated area.
Firefighters were also holding the line and beginning to push back on the 2,500-acre Echo Fire near Lincoln City on the Oregon Coast.
A major concern is the 120,000-acre Slater Fire, which started in Siskiyou County in California and has crossed into Klamath County in Oregon. Grafe said it is rated as the No. 1 priority nationwide for firefighting resources by the National Interagency Fire Center.
The center reported there are 102 large fires that have burned 4.4 million acres in 12 states. More than 26,000 civilian and military personnel are involved in fighting fires in the United States.
Grafe emphasized that nearly all the fires in Oregon remained at zero percent containment.
Brown said that when state and local teams can get into burned areas, they will comb the wreckage to assess deaths and damages.
"We have to do this thoughtfully and methodically," she said.
Andrew Phelps, Oregon Office of Emergency Management, strongly warned residents against returning to fire areas before officials give the all clear.
"Don’t do it — it's disrespectful to those who have lost everything," he said. "It's disrespectful to you and to firefighters."
Phelps on Tuesday had asked Oregonians not to call 911 to report smoke. "There's smoke everywhere," he said.
But on Wednesday he said the 911 system continues to be tasked with non-emergency calls and questions. He urged resident to call the 211 state information line, activate the automatic emergency text systems on their telephones, and sign up for "push notifications" from their local county sheriff or emergency management office.
Brown said that the fires were a warning of what climate change was doing to Oregon, the West Coast and the world.
"This is the bellwether of the future," she said.
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