An unprecedented spate of fierce, wind-driven wildfires in Oregon have all but destroyed five small towns, leaving a potentially high death toll in their wake, the governor said on Wednesday, as initial casualty reports began to surface.
Hundreds of miles away in northern California, three fatalities were confirmed on Wednesday from a lightning-sparked conflagration that roared back to life with greater intensity this week after firefighters had made significant headway containing it.
While more than two dozen major blazes continued to wreak havoc across wide swaths of California, the neighboring state of Oregon bore the latest brunt of wildfires plaguing much of the western United States over the past week.
Winds of up to 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour) sent flames racing tens of miles within hours, engulfing hundreds of homes as firefighters fought at least 35 large blazes across areas of Oregon roughly equal to nearly twice the size of New York City.
Several Oregon communities, including the town of Detroit in the Santiam Valley, as well as Blue River and Vida in coastal Lane County, and Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon, were substantially destroyed, Governor Kate Brown told a news conference.
“This could be the greatest loss in human lives and property due to wildfire in our state’s history,” Brown said, without providing details.
Brown described rescue teams saving evacuees by pulling them from rivers where they took refuge from flames.
Pacific Northwest casualties
A 12-year-old boy and his grandmother died in a wildfire burning near the Santiam Valley community of Lyons, about 50 miles south of Portland, KOIN News reported.
Farther north, multiple blazes also raged in Washington state, where a 1-year-old boy was killed and his parents severely burned fleeing a fire in Okanogan County, police said.
In California, officials said some 64,000 people were under evacuation orders on Wednesday while crews battled 28 major fires raging across portions of the most populous US state.
About a third of those evacuees displaced in hard-hit areas of Butte County, north of Sacramento, where a wildfire has scorched more than 200,000 acres since it was ignited on Aug. 17.
The remains of three victims were found in two separate locations in that fire zone, according to Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea, bringing the total death toll from this summer’s devastating spate of California wildfires to at least 11.
Residents of more than a dozen towns including the city of Oroville were told to flee immediately or be prepared to go at a moment’s notice.
The fire raged perilously close to the outskirts of Paradise, a town largely incinerated in 2018, with 85 lives lost, in a firestorm that ranks as the deadliest in California history.