SALEM, OREGON (NYTIMES) – The wildfire crisis on the West Coast grew to a staggering scale Friday (Sept 11), as huge fires merged and bore down on towns and suburbs, state leaders pleaded for firefighting help from neighbours, and hundreds of thousands of people were told to evacuate, including about 1 of every 10 Oregon residents.
Oregon, Washington state and California are enduring a wildfire season of historic proportions, with the firefighting effort compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and misinformation online.
At least 15 people have died in the fires, with more expected as teams search through burned homes.
The fires have consumed more than 3 million acres (1.21 million hectares) in California, almost 1 million acres in Oregon and destroyed entire towns in Washington.
The blazes have torn through idyllic mountain towns, reduced subdivisions to beams and embers, and spewed foul smoke-filled air across a region that is home to millions of people.
“We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across our state,” said Governor Kate Brown of Oregon, where the Beachie Creek and Riverside fires threatened to merge near Portland’s suburbs.
Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland declared a state of emergency Thursday night, and residents of Molalla, about 30 miles (48km) to the south, packed highways as they fled from the approaching fires.
So far, about 500,000 people in the state had been subject to evacuation orders, said Ms Bobbi Doan, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management.
“Unfortunately, the weather system is not yet giving us a reprieve,” Ms Brown said at a news conference Thursday, adding that the winds were “creating unpredictable movement of the fires.”
Satellite images of the West showed a coastline smothered in thick smoke, and residents woke up, again, to warnings of hazardous air, and, in some places, raining ash.
The National Weather Service said a huge cloud of smoke would descend on Washington state Friday, creating unhealthy breathing conditions around the state.
“For western Washington, it will get worse before it gets better,” the service said.
Heavy smoke was also predicted down the California coast, in many places mixing with fog and seriously reducing visibility, as dozens of fires burned throughout the state.
Although firefighters have gained 20 per cent containment over the North Complex fire, which has burned almost 250,000 acres east of Sacramento, the Creek Fire east of Fresno was still almost completely uncontrolled Thursday night, burning more than 175,000 acres.
Governor Gavin Newsom pleaded with residents to listen to evacuation orders, stressing the magnitude of the fire season.
“Six of the 20 largest wildfires in California history have occurred in 2020,” he said on Twitter. “If you are asked to evacuate please do so immediately.”
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