With their homes in ashes, residents share harrowing tales of survival after massive wildfires kill at least 23
Faith Karimi, CNN
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(CNN) — Overwhelmed firefighters are struggling to contain towers of orange flames and rescue workers are searching through communities burned to the ground in three West Coast states, where wildfires have killed more than a dozen in recent days and at least 23 across a month.
The blazes have killed at least 19 people in California from mid-August through Friday morning — including at least 10 found dead this week in one Northern California fire — with four others recently killed in Washington state and Oregon.
Tiffany Lemmerz of Blue River, Oregon, lost everything, but her family survived, she said. One of several wildfires seething in the state arrived at her doorstep Monday while she was at work. Her daughter, 6, niece and sister were in her house.
As she rushed home to get them, Lemmerz got into a wreck, she told CNN affiliate KOMO. She pleaded with a sheriff’s deputy to give her a ride home, but they couldn’t make it through the flames. The blaze melted the back of her car.
Firefighters from Junction City rushed to the home and got her relatives out.
“My kid’s alive, that’s all I care about,” Lemmerz told the affiliate. “I can’t say anything else. My kid is alive and it was very close.”
More than 10% of Oregon’s population evacuated
In Oregon, wildfires have killed at least three people and nearly wiped out the southern cities of Phoenix and Talent. Authorities fear they’ll find more bodies as they access more neighborhoods, they’ve said.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler declared a state of emergency Thursday night, closing city parks and activating evacuation sites for people in threatened areas. About a half million people have fled their homes in Oregon — more than 10% of the state’s population. And that number is expected to grow.
Thirty-seven wildfires remain active in the state — down from nearly 50 earlier this week. The blazes have scorched about 900,000 acres across the state, the Oregon governor’s office said.
The scope is unprecedented. For the past 10 years, the state has seen an average of 500,000 acres burned each year.
Adding to the grim outlook, Portland has limited firefighting resources because some have been deployed to assist in other parts of the state, Wheeler’s emergency order says.
California: ‘You’d think that you were in a fireplace’
Kristen Marin lives north of San Francisco in Mendocino County, where the massive August Complex fire — the largest blaze in state history at 746,000 acres — has turned the skies a dull orange.
“It feels a little like doomsday,” Marin told CNN affiliate KNXV. “It felt like it was night all during the day time. The air quality was awful. The crickets were chirping. The floodlights were on, thinking it was dark. Everything is covered in ash. It smells like smoke. You’d think that you were in a fireplace.”
About 14,000 firefighters are battling at least two-dozen major wildfires across California. Many, like the August Complex, were sparked by lightning last month.
In the Sierra Nevada range north of Sacramento, the North Complex Fire has torn through the Berry Creek community and the Plumas National Forest since a lightning storm sparked it August 17, consuming more than 244,000 acres.
Seven bodies were found Thursday in areas scorched by that blaze, raising the total killed in the North Complex fire alone to at least 10.
“It was terrifying,” resident Nancy Hamilton told CNN of the blaze that tore through the Berry Creek area. “It was a beast. The thing is a beast.”
That fire has put more than 20,000 people under evacuation orders, including parts of the city of Oroville. Residents of parts of the nearby town of Paradise — devastated by the 2018 Camp Fire — have been told to be ready to leave.
In the central California mountains northeast of Fresno, the Creek Fire has destroyed more than 360 structures, fire officials said. It’s now grown to more than 175,000 acres and is 6% contained.
Fire officials issued evacuation orders and warnings across several parts of the state including in Southern California, where the El Dorado Fire continues to burn parts of San Bernardino County and is 18% contained. In San Diego County, the Valley Fire — which has burned more than 17,000 acres — also prompted several evacuation orders and warnings.
Statewide, more than 3.1 million acres have been scorched this year alone, according to Cal Fire, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has pointed to climate change as a primary factor in the wildfires.
“Wildfires are a big part of the seasonal challenge,” Newsom said. “The challenge we’re facing now is the extreme fire events that we believe are climate induced.”
A 1-year-old dies in Washington
Washington state resident Darrell Herde woke up to a stranger pounding on his door this week. He barely escaped.
“He was yanking on my door and telling me to run. I thought he was a little nuts. I didn’t think it was that bad,” said Herde, a resident of Graham.
“Five minutes after, I walked out the door. It was crawling through trees,” the 71-year-old told CNN affiliate KIRO. “And you can’t believe how fast those embers were flying at you.”
Later, he found his home a pile of rubble. Now, he just has the clothes on his back.
“Someplace in that pile, there is my mother’s rings, and it tore my heart out,” he said. “That’s something that sort of killed me this morning. The rest of this stuff — it’s stuff that you can replace.”
Elsewhere in the state, a 1-year-old boy was killed and his parents were badly burned as they tried to escape the wildfire, officials say.
The family was visiting their property in a rural area west of Spokane and evacuate in the middle of the night when the wildfire got closer. They abandoned their vehicle and ran to a river to flee the menacing flames, CNN affiliate KCRA reported. The couple was rescued from the river but their son did not make it.
The 16 major wildfires burning across Washington have scorched about 600,000 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
“The enormity of these fires, the geographical scope, the intensity and the destruction are unequal in Washington state history,” Gov. Jay Inslee said.