Crews were to resume searching for the dead on Sunday among blackened ruins left by massive wildfires raging in three western US states, where millions of acres have burned in weeks and “mass fatality” incidents are feared in Oregon.
A blitz of wildfires across Oregon, California and Washington have destroyed thousands of homes and a half dozen small towns this summer, scorching a landscape the size of New Jersey and killing at least 26 people since early August.
After four days of brutally hot, windy weather, the weekend brought calmer winds blowing inland from the Pacific Ocean, and cooler, moister conditions that helped crews make headway against blazes that had burned unchecked earlier in the week.
In Oregon, Governor Kate Brown called the perilous blazes a “once-in-a-generation event”, and the director of Oregon’s office of emergency management, Andrew Phelps, said authorities were bracing for the possibility of “mass fatality” incidents.
“There are going to be a number of fatalities, folks that just couldn’t get warning in time and couldn’t evacuate their homes and get to safety,” Phelps told MSNBC on Friday.
At least six people have been killed this week in Oregon, according to state officials. Brown has said that dozens of people remained missing across three counties.
27 fires were still raging across 1.47 million acres in Oregon and Washington on Saturday, the Bureau of Land Management said on Twitter.
In southern Oregon, an apocalyptic scene of charred residential subdivisions and trailer parks stretched for miles along Highway 99 south of Medford through the neighboring communities of Phoenix and Talent.
In California, tens of thousands of firefighters were battling 28 major wildfires as of Saturday afternoon, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Improving weather conditions had helped them gain a measure of containment over most of the blazes.
The White House said Trump, a Republican, will meet with federal and California officials on Monday. The president has said that western governors bear some of the blame for intense fire seasons in recent years, accusing them of poor forest management.
Trump’s Democratic opponent in the November election, Joe Biden, on Saturday linked the conflagrations to climate change, echoing comments made a day earlier by California Governor Gavin Newsom.
Thick smoke and ash from the fires has darkened the sky over the Pacific Northwest since Labor Day, creating some of the world’s worst air-quality levels and driving residents indoors.
More than 4,000 homes and other structures have been incinerated in California alone over the past three weeks.
In Portland, where more than 100 days of political protests have turned increasingly tense in recent weeks, the Multnomah County Sheriff chastised residents for setting up their own checkpoints to stop cars after conspiracy theories spread on social media that members of Black Lives Matter or Antifa were lighting fires. Local officials have called those assertions groundless.
Facebook said on Saturday it was now removing false claims that the wildfires in Oregon were started by certain groups.
“This is based on confirmation from law enforcement that these rumors are forcing local fire and police agencies to divert resources from fighting the fires and protecting the public,” a Facebook spokesman said.