Calmer winds and rising humidity helped firefighters battle more than 100 wildfires Saturday that continued to rage largely uncontrolled along the U.S. West Coast from California to Washington state and beyond, incinerating entire towns and killing at least 24 people.
Authorities were concerned, however, that the receding flames could lead to the discovery of more bodies across the blackened terrain in the region.
“We are preparing for a mass fatality incident based on what we know and the numbers of structures that have been lost,” Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management (OEM), said Friday.
More than 40,000 people in Oregon have been evacuated and some 500,000 — more than 10% of its population — remained under some level of evacuation protocol as fires in the state destroyed thousands of homes and burned hundreds of thousands of hectares. Oregon Governor Kate Brown on Friday amended Thursday’s statement by OEM that said a half-million people throughout the state had been ordered to evacuate.
The Oregon Convention Center in Portland has been transformed into a shelter for evacuees. Other evacuation centers were opened across the state, while many evacuees have simply taken refuge in their cars in large parking lots.
In southern Oregon, an apocalyptic scene of burned residential subdivisions and trailer parks stretched for kilometers along a highway — a scene mirrored in parts of California, where the governor gave a blunt assessment.
“This is a climate damn emergency. This is real and it's happening. This is the perfect storm," California Governor Gavin Newsom said. “What we're experiencing right here is coming to communities all across the United States of America unless we get our act together on climate change.” More than 68,000 people are under evacuation orders in California.
Thick smoke and haze blanketed much of the region, triggering health warnings and prompting officials to urge residents to remain indoors.
In Oregon’s most populated region, helicopters dropped water and fire retardant on two fires that threatened to merge.
Brown said Friday that dozens of people were missing in Jackson and Marion counties.
In California, the largest fire in the state’s history was burning in the Mendocino National Forest, about 190 kilometers northwest of Sacramento.
The amount of land burned in Washington state in just the past five days has made this the state's second-worst fire season, after 2015.
"This is not an act of God," Washington Governor Jay Inslee said Friday. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
This year’s wildfires in California have already burned record areas of land. The year also saw the largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history, along with five of the top 10 largest fires in state history. The fire season is still young in the region, where wildfires have historically intensified in the fall.
In addition to beating back the wildfires, authorities are now challenged with fighting misinformation on social media sites that the fires were ignited by arsonists from far right and far left groups. The FBI said Friday that it had investigated some claims and so far had found them to be untrue.
On Friday, however, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department in Oregon announced that Michael Bakkela, 41, had been arrested on two counts of arson and other charges in connection with the Almeda fire in southern Oregon. Bakkela has denied starting the blaze.
The sheriff’s department also said a man was found dead near an ignition point of the Almeda fire, which burned hundreds of homes, and that a search was underway for about 50 missing people.
Meanwhile, meteorologists said California’s wildfires were responsible for the orange glow in the sky that people across Britain woke up to Friday.
Meteorologist Simon Lee told The Telegraph: “Meteorologically speaking, in the last few days we have seen a very strong and straight, west-east jet stream, flowing across the North Atlantic from North America to Europe, which has undoubtedly helped rapidly and coherently transport the aerosols from North America.”