Blazes engulf US, dozens missing
PIC: AFP

A change in the weather - with winds easing and humidity rising - have helped firefighters battling massive blazes in Oregon that have taken a deadly toll from one end of the state to the other.

Gov. Kate Brown said Friday that dozens of people were still missing and tens of thousands had been forced to flee their homes. The state's emergency management director, Andrew Phelps, said officials are "preparing for a mass fatality event" and thousands of structures have been destroyed.

Oregon officials haven't released an exact death count but at least eight fatalities have been reported. Marion County Sheriff Joe Kast said Friday evening that searchers had found two victims of the Beachie Creek fire near Salem. A 1-year-old boy was killed in wildfires in Washington.

Hundreds of firefighters were battling two large blazes that threatened to merge near the most populated part of Oregon, including the suburbs of Portland.

Scores of people were missing in Jackson County in the southern area of the state and in Marion County east of Salem, the state capital, Brown told a news conference. Authorities also announced that a man had been arrested on two counts of arson in connection with a fire in southern Oregon.

Improved weather helped efforts on the ground after days of high winds, heat and low humidity. "The wind laid down quite a bit for us yesterday," said Stefan Myers of the state's fire information team.

Almost 500 personnel were working on the fires near Portland, which were just a few miles (kilometers) apart, with rugged terrain between them that limits boots-on-the-ground efforts to control the flames, Myers said. If the fires merge, they could generate enough heat to send embers thousands of feet into the air, potentially igniting other areas.

Authorities say more than 1,500 square miles (3,880 square kilometers) have burned in Oregon during recent days, nearly double the amount in a typical year and an area larger than Rhode Island.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee noted that the amount of land burned in just the past five days amounted to the state's second-worst fire season, after 2015. He called the blazes "climate fires" rather than wildfires.

"This is not an act of God," Inslee said. "This has happened because we have changed the climate."

Pack up & leave to save your life

John Sykes built his life around his cabin in the dense woods of Northern California. He raised his two children there, expanded it and improved it over time and made it resilient to all kinds of disaster except fire.

So when the winds started howling on Tuesday and the skies became so dark from smoke that he had to turn on his lights at midday, he didn't hesitate to leave it all behind in an instant before any evacuation order.

With the disaster two years ago in nearby Paradise, in which 85 people perished in the deadliest and most destructive fire in modern state history, still fresh on his mind, Sykes got his wife and a friend into his car and left with only a change of clothes each.

"All I could do is look in the rear view mirror and see orange sky and a mushroom cloud and that told me it was hot and to keep going," Sykes said on Friday. "It was a terrifying feeling."

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