Thousands of evacuees displaced by deadly wildfires in Oregon settled into a second week of life in shelters and car camping as fire crews battled on, and search teams scoured the ruins of incinerated homes for the missing.
With state resources stretched to their limit, Donald Trump approved a request from Oregon’s governor for a federal disaster declaration, bolstering US government assistance for emergency response and relief efforts.
In Los Angeles, firefighters waged an all-out campaign to save the famed Mount Wilson Observatory from flames that crept to within 500ft of the site.
Dozens of fires have charred some 4.5m acres of tinder-dry brush, grass and woodlands in Oregon, California and Washington state since August, ravaging several small towns, destroying thousands of homes and killing at least 34 people.
Eight deaths have been confirmed during the past week in Oregon, which became the latest and most concentrated hotspot in a larger summer outbreak of fires across the entire western US.
The confirmed death toll from the North Complex fire in Oroville, California, rose to 15 on Tuesday – putting it among the top five deadliest fires in the state. At least 25 people have perished in California wildfires over the past four weeks.
A total of 3.4m acres – more than any single year in its history – have burned so far this year in California, 2.8m acres in just the last month, said Gavin Newsom, California’s governor, at a press conference on Wednesday.
More than 4,200 homes and other buildings statewide have gone up in smoke.
Newsom has repeatedly pointed to the climate crisis as exacerbating the “megafires” of this year’s season – this time last year, wildfires had not even burned 5% of the acreage that has been scorched in 2020.
“There are no Democratic thermometers or Republican thermometers,” he tweeted. “The fact is our average temperature has increased over the last 40 years. We’re experiencing record temperatures across CA. The hottest August on record. The evidence of climate change is all around us.”
The conflagrations, which officials and scientists have described as unprecedented in scope and ferocity, have also filled skies in the US west with smoke and soot, compounding a public health crisis already posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Satellite images show that smoke from wildfires had traveled thousands of miles through the atmosphere to Britain and other parts of northern Europe.
Hospitals in hard-hit Oregon report a 10% increase in emergency room visits for breathing problems. Doctors are being inundated with calls from worried patients.
“It’s really putting a burden on our asthmatic patients,” said Dr Paul Williams, an allergy and immunology specialist in Everett, Washington. “They’re calling us more often and they’re requiring additional medications.”
The fires roared to life in California in mid-August, and erupted across Oregon and Washington around Labor Day last week, many of them sparked by catastrophic lightning storms and stoked by record-breaking heatwaves and bouts of howling winds.
Although sorting the weather conditions from the climate change is difficult, it’s clear that global heating “has its fingerprint on these fires”, said Meg Krawchuk, a pyrogeographer at Oregon State University. Drier, hotter atmospheric conditions have left the landscape more prone to burning, she explained. “We’re increasingly worried about the probabilities of more and more frequent, extreme drought, and that’s teeing us up for more fires,” she said.
Weather conditions improved early this week, enabling firefighters to begin to make headway in efforts to contain and tamp down the blazes.
The California department of forestry and fire protection (Cal Fire) said 16,600 firefighters were still battling 25 major fires on Tuesday, after achieving full containment around the perimeter of other large blazes.
First responders in the state say they are facing fires that are burning hotter, faster and more frequently than ever before – and that it is only expected to get worse as the season goes on. “I have never seen something at this level,” James Bowron, a battalion chief at the Oakland fire department, said about his nearly three decades on the job.
One wildfire fatality has been confirmed in Washington state, where some 400 structures have been lost. Roughly 1m have been blackened in Oregon, double the state’s annual average over the past decade. More than 1,700 structures, most of them dwellings, have been incinerated
Some 16 people reported missing remain unaccounted for in Oregon, emergency management officials said. Last week, authorities said they were bracing for possible mass casualties as search teams began combing wreckage of homes destroyed during chaotic evacuations.
In the fire-stricken south-western Oregon town of Phoenix, uprooted families, many with young children, were sleeping in their cars, huddling at a civic center or in churches, city council member Sarah Westover said.
“It’s much more difficult to follow the Covid restrictions given the environment,” Westover said.
Marcus Welch, a food service director and youth soccer coach in Phoenix, said he was helping a group of high school students whose homes were spared to run a donation center set up to assist evacuees from a mobile-home park reduced to ash.
“Every day, I hear a sad story. Every day, I hear a family displaced. People are crying because high school kids are giving them food, water … It’s been a total blessing,” Welch said. “Some people, they lost everything, so we encourage them to take everything they can.”
Westover said her community was in grief, while fearing a flare-up might force them to flee again. Her house in Phoenix was spared, but others nearby were leveled.
“It’s like it cherry-picked – it burned down a house, then skipped two, then burned down another. I guess that’s the way they kind of work with the embers flying around,” Westover said.
The evacuations have also wreaked havoc on the Oregon prison system and have already been linked to a Covid outbreak. Officials said Wednesday that two evacuated prisoners have tested positive and noted that they mixed with groups outside of their units during the evacuation process to another facility. Evacuees have been sleeping in overcrowded prisons, and it’s unclear how many people may have been affected by the new Covid infections.
On Tuesday Kamala Harris toured fire damage in California, which continues to suffer from unprecedented infernos and terrible air quality.
Harris and California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, toured the area surrounding Pine Ridge elementary school in Auberry, in the Fresno area, which has been hit hard by the devastating Creek fire. Speaking at the site, Harris praised the firefighters who have worked to control the blazes, and said: “It is incumbent on us, in terms of the leadership of our nation, to take seriously these new changes in our climate, and to do what we can to mitigate against the damage.”
Harris said the chimneys of burned down buildings “remind me of tombstones”. Next to her, Newsom pointed out that it was “snowing ashes”.
On Tuesday, Newsom said the Creek fire was directly impacted by the drought that ended in 2017, killing 163m trees in the region that acted as fuel for the fast-growing flames that prompted emergency military airlift evacuations. The Creek fire has now grown to 220,025 acres – the 12th largest in state history – and is 18% contained.