Wildfire smoke choked the U.S. West Coast, posing a health hazard to millions, as firefighters battled deadly blazes that obliterated some towns and displaced tens of thousands of people while rescuers searched for dozens of missing people – the latest in a series of calamities this year.
For people already enduring the coronavirus pandemic, the resulting economic fallout and political tensions evident in the Black Lives Matter protests and far-right counter-protests, the fires added a new layer of misery.
“What’s next? You have the protests, the coronavirus pandemic, now the wildfires. What else can go wrong?” lamented Danielle Oliver, 40, of Happy Valley, southeast of Portland.
The death toll from the fires in California, Oregon and Washington stood at 31. Most of the fatalities were in California and Oregon. U.S. officials braced for the possibility of further fatalities as wide stretches of land in California, Oregon and Washington remained cut off by flames fueled by tinder-dry conditions of the kind caused by climate change. Unprecedented infernos have now destroyed an area roughly the size of New Jersey.
Oregon’s emergency management director said officials were preparing for a possible “mass fatality event” if many more bodies turn up in the ash. And the state fire marshal resigned after abruptly being placed on administrative leave. The state police superintendent said the crisis demanded an urgent response that required a leadership change.
A half-million Oregonians were under evacuation warnings or orders to leave. With air contamination levels at historic highs, people stuffed towels under door jambs to keep smoke out. Some even wore N95 masks in their own homes.
Some communities resembled the bombed-out cities of Europe after World War II, with buildings reduced to charred rubble piled atop blackened earth. Residents either managed to flee as the flames closed in or perished.
Millicent Catarancuic’s body was found near a car on her 5-acre (2-hectare) property in Berry Creek, California. The flames came so quickly she did not have time to get out.
On Tuesday, she packed several of her dogs and cats in the car but later called her daughter to say she decided to stay. Firefighters had made progress battling the blaze. The wind was calm. The flames still seemed far away. Then they rushed onto the property.
“I feel like, maybe when they passed, they had an army of cats and dogs with her to help her through it,” said her daughter, Holly Catarancuic.
In Oregon alone, more than 40,000 people have been evacuated and about 500,000 are in different levels of evacuation zones, Gov. Kate Brown said.
Fires along Oregon's Cascade Range grew Saturday but at a slower rate than earlier in the week, when strong easterly winds acted like a bellows, pushing two large fires – the Beachie Creek Fire and the Riverside Fire – toward each other and the state's major population centers, including Portland's southeastern suburbs.