‘Like a war zone hit it’: Dozens remain missing as deadly wildfires scorch Western states
Eliott C. McLaughlin, Amir Vera and Susannah Cullinane, CNN
Published at | Updated at
(CNN) — Dozens of wildfires tearing through communities across the West on Sunday have killed 33 people, and officials say dozens more are missing.
Images from the ravaged areas are perfectly apocalyptic, with scorched trees and telephone poles poking out from smoky gray, ashen landscapes. Buildings are reduced to piles of bricks, concrete and metal. Cars sit in driveways and along roadsides, blackened and gutted.
Major fires spanning several states have burned 4.6 million acres, national fire officials say. That’s an area roughly equivalent to Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.
While the 94 major blazes are burning mostly in rural and forested areas, major cities along the West Coast — Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, among them — are also feeling the impact.
Smoke from the blazes is making air quality unhealthy, which can irritate lungs, cause inflammation and affect the immune system, heightening the risk of lung infections such as coronavirus. In Oakland, California, where many businesses and facilities are closed because of statewide Covid-19 precautions, officials have opened “clean air centers” for those with nowhere else to go, CNN affiliate KGO reported.
“I currently don’t have my own home right now so I didn’t want to be stuck outdoors all day, and I have asthma. I could start to feel like my breathing was getting a little tight so I decided to come over here,” said Teddie Moorehead, who has been homeless since June and sought refuge at the Dimond Branch Library.
Of the people killed since some of the fires broke out in mid-August, 22 have been in California, many in recent days. Ten people have been killed in Oregon, and a child was killed in Washington state.
The majority of the fires are in California (25), Washington (16), Oregon (13) and Idaho (10), though blazes have also emerged in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, the National Interagency Fire Center said Sunday morning.
“More than 30,000 firefighters and support personnel are assigned to incidents across the country,” the center said Sunday.
‘It’s all gone’
The Holiday Farm Fire east of Eugene, Oregon, which has torched more than 160,000 acres in the Willamette National Forest — an area slightly larger than the city of Chicago — is growing rapidly. It spread 5,000 acres Friday alone, officials say.
Caught in the middle of the forest is the town of Vida, where Nailah Garner had to flee her dream home last week, she and her husband forced to scramble “like the Keystone Cops,” she told CNN affiliate KOMO.
“We didn’t know what to grab. We didn’t pack. Who knows what to do when you’re going through this?” she said.
Authorities have shut down the main road into the town of 1,200 situated on the picturesque McKenzie River. Only residents who need to retrieve their pets or emergency medications are allowed past the roadblocks, the station reported.
Garner could hear the sadness in her friend’s voice when she reported that Garner’s dream home was no more, KOMO reported. Wearing donated clothes, Garner explained she had lost everything.
“It’s all gone, and it looks like a war zone hit it,” she said.
Three California fires reach historic proportions
In California, firefighters are battling more than two dozen major fires, but officials expressed hope that improving weather conditions will boost efforts to control the flames.
Three of the five largest wildfires in state history are burning now, officials say. One of those blazes, the LNU Complex Fire, which was about 96% contained as of Saturday, has burned more than 363,000 acres.
The fire is burning in Northern California wine country, and vintners worry the smoke will taint the grapes, reducing this year’s yield. Oscar Renteria manages thousands of acres of vineyards, including his own patch on the edge of the LNU Complex Fire, about half of which is ruined, he told CNN affiliate KPIX.
“That’s what I can predict right now,” he told the station. “I’ve got two more weeks to go to test, and I’m not sure that I’m even going to pick some of mine. I may just take my losses and go home.”
Little rain, high temperatures and strong winds helped fuel the flames, and it’s unclear how long it will take to get them under control.
Angeles National Forest Fire Chief Robert Garcia’s department is fighting fires with 500 personnel, when it usually has 1,000 to 1,500, he said Saturday. Some firefighters are working more than 24 hours in a shift, he said. The Bobcat Fire northeast of Los Angeles is tearing through the mountainous national forest.
More than 4,100 structures have been destroyed since August 15, Cal Fire said Sunday, adding that 16,750 firefighters are battling fires statewide. As the massive fires rage, more are popping up.
“Firefighters across the state responded to 36 new wildfires yesterday, and all were contained quickly,” the agency said.
Fires in the state have burned more than 3.3 million acres this year, with the August Complex Fire burning in the Mendocino National Forest accounting for more than a quarter of the sum. The blaze, the largest in state history, is only 28% contained, according to Cal Fire.
In the Sierra Nevada range north of Sacramento, the North Complex Fire has consumed more than 258,000 acres, killing at least 12 people, the US Forest Service said Saturday. The victims include a 16-year-old boy who was fleeing the area in his vehicle, Butte County authorities said.
Berry Creek’s only store, the Village Market, was destroyed in the fire, CNN affiliate KPIX reported Saturday.
“I cried. I cried for long time,” owner Mitch Dorghalli told the station. “The worst day in my life when I heard that news.”
Gusty winds and low humidity in Northern California on Sunday may exacerbate already dangerous conditions, Cal Fire said.
‘We saw the perfect storm’
At least eight of Oregon’s wildfires are expected to burn “until the winter’s rains fall,” said state Department of Forestry Fire Chief Doug Grafe.
In the forested lakeside town of Detroit, 55 miles east of Salem, the Lionshead Fire moved so swiftly that the town of 225 went from having no evacuation warnings to being ordered to evacuate immediately in a matter of hours, CNN affiliate KATU reported.
“Our homes are absolutely destroyed. I’ve seen a few videos and photos and my lovely little house that we remodeled 12 years ago in this beautiful canyon area is absolutely flattened. It looks as though a bomb went off,” resident Elizabeth Smith told the station.
The Idanha-Detroit Rural Fire Protection District lost one of its fire engines and its office in the blaze, prompting the Aurora Fire District, about a three-hour drive northwest, to donate one of its own rigs to the hard-hit town
“It came fully loaded with hoses, nozzles, medical and rescue equipment, and food and water for firefighting crews in our district,” the Idanha-Detroit district said on Facebook. “Our firefighters were overjoyed to receive this very gracious gift, many of us succumbing to tears of gratitude.”
Four of the 10 people killed in Oregon’s wildfires died in the Beachie Creek Fire in Marion County, where Detroit is located.
Two victims identified by the Marion County Medical Examiner’s Office were Wyatt Tofte, 13, and Peggy Mosso, 71, both of Lyons, about 60 miles southeast of Portland.
Wyatt was found in a car with his dog in his lap while Mosso, his grandmother, was found in another car nearby. Her daughter and Wyatt’s mother, Angela, attempted to save her and was badly burned. Two other victims were located but have not been recovered because of treacherous conditions.
Dozens of people are missing, mostly across Jackson, Lane and Marion counties in western Oregon, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said.
QAnon fans spread fake news on real fires
Typically, fires consume about 500,000 acres a year in the state, but “this week alone, we burned over a million acres of beautiful Oregon,” she said.
“We saw the perfect firestorm. We saw incredible winds. We saw very cold, hot temperatures and, of course, we have a landscape that has seen 30 years of drought,” Brown said.
The state is preparing for a “mass fatality incident” based on how many structures are charred, Oregon Emergency Management Director Andrew Phelps said Friday.
About 500,000 people in the state are under some type of evacuation alert. Evacuation orders have been issued for more than 40,000, Brown said.
80% of buildings in Washington town destroyed
The past five days in Washington have made for the state’s second-worst fire season in history, Gov. Jay Inslee said. As of Saturday, 15 major fires were burning.
A 1-year-old boy died and his parents were badly burned as they tried to escape a wildfire, officials said.
The family was visiting their property west of Spokane and evacuated when the wildfire encroached. They abandoned their vehicle and fled to a river, CNN affiliate KCRA reported. The couple was rescued, but their son did not make it.
Another child was killed in the Cold Springs Fire in Omak, near the Canadian border, officials said.
Earlier this week, Inslee visited Malden in eastern Washington, where 80% of the city’s buildings — including the fire station, post office, city hall and library — were destroyed.
“It looked like a bomb went off,” city officials said, according to CNN affiliate KIRO.
In Seattle, the Woodland Park Zoo said Sunday it is temporarily closing its doors because of the air quality, though a team will remain at the facility to monitor the animals for “respiratory compromise,” it said.
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