Fires, fear and guns on America's wild West Coast

ESTACADA, OREGON (AFP) – “This is just stuff. We’re gonna move on from it,” said Ms Margi Wyatt, holding back tears as she stared at her burned-out mobile home destroyed by one of the fires raging through the US state of Oregon.

The 70-year-old fled 50km from her home to Estacada in Portland’s south-east as the huge and still-uncontained Riverside Fire raced through.

The blaze devastated the mobile home site, located on a wooded hill next to a road. All the properties in Ms Wyatt’s row were destroyed – but homes just 10m away were left unscathed.

It is one of scores of infernos ravaging that have burnt through a record two million hectares and left at least 27 people dead.

With smoke still rising from the hill, she and her husband, Mr Marcelino Maceda, have come back to sift through the remains and pick up anything that may have escaped the flames.

But there’s little left in the ashes. Among the belongings they find is a partially melted watch, a blackened bracelet and a ring.

“The police just told us to grab our things and go,” Ms Wyatt said as the flames neared. “I gathered what I could in 20 minutes – cash, important papers, jewellery.”

Everything else, she says, is in the blackened remains of her home, which they moved into just two years ago.

But Ms Wyatt – a retired caregiver – said she was glad that at least no one was hurt, but added: “I don’t want to come back. These are plastic houses. Our next move is a stick house.”


Mr Matt Watts standing guard with firearms outside his home in Estacada, Oregon, on Sept 12, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

Luckier residents moved back in as soon as the evacuation order was lifted, and much of the site was occupied again on Saturday (Sept 12).

Some 10km to the north, a dense pall of smoke smothered the centre of Estacada. Some of the city’s 3,500 inhabitants have returned despite the acrid air and are patrolling in cars to prevent robberies.

Mr Matt Watts, semi-automatic rifle in hand and pistol in his belt, is standing watch at his property to keep potential pillagers at bay.

“I hear nothing but looters and arsons on the radio (scanner). I did not feel in fear of my house catching fire so I decided to hang around and protect it,” Mr Watts said.

“I hope to be a deterrent for somebody that means harm.”

He said he has heard shots at night and seen cars with licence plates from other states, which make him suspicious.

For days, rumours have spread that radical leftists have been lighting fires in Oregon – false information that was debunked by the local branch of the FBI.

But James, 29, said the robberies are a reality – and that he has lost about US$15,000 (S$20,520) worth of property, stolen from his workshop between Tuesday and Saturday.

“We had our Dune racer stolen. I’ve had a whole bunch of construction tools stolen. My motorcycle, the most recent thing we found out today, my motorcycle’s gone out of the shop. Yeah, just a lot of different tools really.”

He coordinates with his neighbours and they “come out at different times just to keep a watch on each other’s houses, but outside of that we just had to monitor our cameras,” James said, pointing to images of the robbers.

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