Deadly wildfires in heavily populated northwest Oregon were growing, with hundreds of thousands of people told to flee encroaching flames, while residents to the south tearfully assessed their losses.
The number of people evacuated statewide because of fires had climbed to an estimated 500,000 – more than 10% of the 4.2 million people in the state, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management reported late Thursday.
One fire approached the city of Molalla, triggering a mandatory evacuation order for the community of about 9,000 people located 30 miles south of Portland. A police car rolled through the streets with a loudspeaker blaring “evacuate now.”
Inmates were being moved from a women’s prison less than a mile from Interstate 5 in Portland’s southern suburbs “out of an abundance of caution,” the Oregon Department of Corrections said.
With two large fires threatening to merge, some firefighters in Clackamas County, which includes Molalla, were told to disengage temporarily because of the danger. Officials tried to reassure residents who abandoned their homes, and law enforcement said patrols would be stepped up to prevent looting.
The local fire department said on Twitter: “To be clear, your firefighters are still working hard on the wildfires in Clackamas County. They are taking a ‘tactical pause’ to allow firefighters to reposition, get accountability & evaluate extreme fire conditions.”
“We haven’t abandoned you,” the fire officials said.
Meanwhile residents of the small Oregon town of Phoenix, near the California state line along Interstate 5, walked through a scene of devastation after one of the state’s many wildfires wiped out much of their community. A mobile home park, houses, and businesses were burned, leaving twisted remains on charred ground.
Many of the residents were immigrants, with few resources to draw on.
Artemio Guterrez stood helplessly next to his pick-up, surveying the rubble of his mobile home. His children sat quietly in the truck bed and waited for him to salvage what he could. He was able to find a ceramic pot with a smiley face on it, some charred miniature houses from a Christmas-themed village, and a cross that formed when two pieces of glass melted together.
Mr. Guterrez, a single father of four, had been at work at a vineyard nearby when he saw thick smoke spreading through Rogue River Valley. He raced home just in time to snatch his kids from the trailer park where they live alongside dozens of other Mexican families. They got out with just the clothes on their back.
“I’m going to start all over again. It’s not easy but it’s not impossible either. You have to be a little tough in situations like this,” said Mr. Guterrez, who had just returned from his mother’s funeral in Mexico. Entire mobile home parks with many units occupied by Mexican immigrants who worked in nearby vineyards or doing construction were reduced to ash in Phoenix and nearby Talent.
“We’re kind of like a family. We’ve known each other for years, since we came here or even before then,” Mr. Guterrez said of his neighbors at Talent Mobile Estates. “We’re living day by day.”
California firefighters make progress
Meanwhile, a Northern California wildfire that destroyed a foothill hamlet has become the state’s deadliest blaze of the year with 10 people confirmed dead – and the toll could climb as searchers look for 16 missing people.
The North Complex fire that exploded in wind-driven flames earlier in the week was advancing more slowly Friday after the winds eased and smoke from the blaze shaded the area and lowered the temperature, allowing firefighters to make progress, authorities said.
However, the smoke made for poor visibility and fire helicopters couldn’t fly Thursday.
In most parts of the state, red flag warnings of extreme fire danger because of hot, dry weather or gusty winds were lifted.
Only a day or two earlier, the North Complex fire tore through Sierra Nevada foothills so quickly that fire crews were nearly engulfed, locals fled for their lives to a pond, and the town of Berry Creek, population 525, was gutted.
More than 2,000 homes and other buildings had burned in the fire, which began several weeks ago as a lightning-sparked collection of blazes northeast of San Francisco. The final toll is expected to be much higher. Damage assessment teams planned to begin a methodical search of the burned areas on Friday.
Among those unaccounted for were Sandy Butler and her husband, who had called their son to say they were going to try to escape the flames by finding shelter in a pond.
“We’re still hoping and praying for good news,” said Jessica Fallon, who has two children with the Butler’s grandson and considers them her own grandparents. “Everything is replaceable, but not my grandparents’ lives. I’d rather lose everything than those two. They kind of held the family together.”
Ms. Fallon said she’d been peppering hospitals with phone calls in search of her grandparents. There was no word of them late Thursday night.
The speed and ferocity of the fire astonished observers, even those who remembered a blaze only two years earlier that killed some 85 people and devastated the town of Paradise, a few miles away from the current blaze.
Residents jammed the main road out of town on Wednesday amid falling ash and red skies. Authorities lifted an evacuation warning for Paradise on Thursday but authorities urged people to remain alert.
A crew fighting the fire was overrun by flames Wednesday when winds shifted and its members escaped with only minor injuries after deploying emergency shelters. It was the second time in two days that firefighters in California had to take the rare last-ditch effort to save their lives.
“It’s a historic season on top of a historic season that replaced a historic season. We just keep setting new precedents, and then we keep destroying them,” said Sean Norman, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Oregon reels from simultaneous fires
Oregon Governor Kate Brown said more than 900,000 acres – greater than the size of Rhode Island – have burned in Oregon in the past three days – nearly double the territory that burns in a typical year. Oregon officials were shocked by the number of simultaneous fires, which stood at 37 Thursday, according to the state Office of Emergency Management. In Washington, wildfires have scorched nearly 937 square miles.
Back in Phoenix, Marty Curtis considered herself lucky. Her house was spared and she escaped with her cat, Louie.
“You could see the flames. You could hear things popping – gas tanks and propane tanks exploding,” she said. “I have my house. I have my life. I have my cat and I have my job – and right now, that’s all I need.”
This story was reported by The Associated Press. Brian Melley reported from Los Angeles. Andrew Selsky reported from Salem, Oregon. Associated Press writers John Antczak in Los Angeles; Sara Cline in Salem; Nick Geranios in Spokane, Washington; and Lisa Baumann in Seattle contributed to this report.