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17 Dead and Dozens Missing in Vast Western Wildfires

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ImageCharred vehicles in Eagle Point, Ore., on Friday.
Credit…Adrees Latif/Reuters

Dozens of people remain missing in Oregon as wildfires that have torched millions of acres of land across the West continue to burn, the death toll has risen to 17 and smoke was choking residents in cities far from the fires.

With the blazes still spreading and many homes destroyed, Oregon’s director of emergency management said the state feared a “mass fatality incident.”

Oregon, Washington and California are all under assault from a wildfire season of historic proportions, with the firefighting effort compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and misinformation online. Already, California has seen more than 2.2 million acres go up in flames, nearly nine times what burned in 2019, and officials warn that more fires are likely.

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California said on Friday that he feared more bodies would be found and described the scale of the battle firefighters were in as unprecedented. One of the fire complexes burning this week became the largest in the state’s history, and has now burned across 747,000 acres.

“It’s just something we’ve never seen in our lifetime,” Mr. Newsom said, standing amid charred trees and a yellow haze of smoke left by the raging fires.

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‘Five of the Most Destructive Fires’: Newsom Cites Historic Toll of Blazes

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California surveyed wildfire damage and delivered an update on the state’s efforts to curb the fire’s spread.

We have now — currently have — five active fires that are five of the most destructive fires over the last, in the history of the state, five of the 20 most destructive that are currently being suppressed, which is just remarkable when you consider that we just came out August, the hottest in recorded history. Nineteen people have lost their lives in these fires. We anticipate that number may potentially go up as we get back into areas that have been ravaged by flame, and obviously smoke begins to clear. Thirty-nine hundred-plus structures have been destroyed. The good news is the winds have settled down. The good news is there’s weather starting to appear offshore that will create an environment where we may get a little bit of precipitation — a modest amount of precipitation. Want to just, again, express deep respect, admiration for all of our front-line folks out there doing the hand crew work, doing the work on making sure we’re dozing, creating these breaks.

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Gov. Gavin Newsom of California surveyed wildfire damage and delivered an update on the state’s efforts to curb the fire’s spread.

In Oregon, the fires have burned over more than 1 million acres — a size of land larger than Rhode Island — and the state’s air quality ranks among the worst in the world.

“Almost anywhere in the state you can feel this right now,” said Gov. Kate Brown said.

Tens of thousands of Oregonians have already been evacuated, and about 500,000 are in areas that may be ordered to flee as the fires grow. Towns including Talent and Phoenix have already been largely obliterated, and new deaths were reported on Friday.

Three new deaths in Oregon were reported on Friday: Officials in Marion County found two additional victims from the Beachie Creek Fire east of Salem, and crews found another victim in a house east of Eugene.

In Washington, where fires have burned more than 626,000 acres since Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee said the state was suffering “a cataclysmic event.”

But as residents prepared for more pain, they also looked to the skies and hoped that changing weather might help them this weekend. Doug Grafe, chief of Fire Protection for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said that the strong winds that had spread the fires had dissipated, and that cooler temperatures and higher humidity would help fire crews move “from just life safety to the offense” in fighting the blazes.

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Credit…Gillian Flaccus/Associated Press

Authorities in southern Oregon charged a 41-year-old man with starting part of one of this year’s most destructive fires, saying he lit the fire in a small Oregon town as a larger blaze moved toward the area.

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office said the Almeda Fire started around 11 a.m. on Tuesday in Ashland, Ore., and then began spreading north along Interstate 5. Around 5 p.m., residents reported that a man had started a fire in Phoenix, a town of about 4,500 people just north of Ashland that was under orders to evacuate, authorities said.

The Sheriff’s Office said police officers discovered Michael Jarrod Bakkela at the scene, denying that he started the large fire nearby. Police arrested him on a parole violation.

On Friday, the Jackson County district attorney charged him with arson, criminal mischief and reckless endangering.

Mr. Bakkela, who could not be reached, had not yet been appointed a lawyer, said Beth Heckert, the county’s district attorney. He was scheduled to be arraigned in court on Monday, she said.

Mike Moran, a public information officer for the Jackson County sheriff, said Mr. Bakkela had a criminal record and was well known to local law enforcement. A news release from the Sheriff’s Office described him as “a local transient.”

While many wildfires on the West Coast this year have burned through remote areas and parts of rural communities, the Almeda Fire hit a series of towns along the freeway in southern Oregon, destroying an estimated 500 homes and 100 businesses. Mr. Moran said authorities were still investigating the fire’s initial point of origin in Ashland. He said that they suspected arson there, too, and that they found the remains of one man near the fire’s start.

Credit…Kristina Barker for The New York Times

Every natural disaster has its holdouts. But the political fear-stoking that accompanied a tumultuous summer of racial-justice protests in Oregon has become a volatile new complication in the catastrophic wildfires that pushed closer to Portland on Friday, as authorities try to evacuate thousands of people.

Law-enforcement officials across the state said they had been swamped with calls about social-media misinformation and begged people to “STOP. SPREADING. RUMORS!” In the line of fire, the swirl of rumors actually helped goad some people into defying evacuation orders so they could stay and guard their homes.

As a Level 3 evacuation on Thursday urged people to “leave now,” an eerie stillness fell over Molalla, an old timber town of 9,000 an hour’s drive south of Portland, and the holdout residents girded themselves for two threats. One was the very real 125,000-acre Riverside Fire burning just east of town. The other was the imagined invasion of left-wing mobs and arsonists that multiple law-enforcement agencies have sought to refute.

Residents who remained hosed down their roofs and soaked their lawns. They organized go-bags of baby supplies and clothes, just in case. They scouted for unfamiliar cars on the roads.

“I’m protecting my city,” Troy McNeeley said as he stood in front of the 900-square foot home he shares with his son, his son’s partner and several cats. “If I see people doing crap, I’m going to hurt them.”

The rumors played into some conservative residents’ fears and anger over months of protests in Portland, where left-wing and right-wing groups have occasionally clashed.

On Wednesday, the police in Portland warned protesters about lighting fires — a seemingly innocuous public-safety message that was followed by waves of rumor about arsonists and mayhem. Sheriff’s offices and fire departments already coping with wildfires that have consumed 900,000 acres were flooded with phone calls.

“We are inundated with questions about things that are FAKE stories,” the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Medford posted on Facebook. “One example is a story circulating that varies about what group is involved as to setting fires and arrests being made. THIS IS NOT TRUE!”

Law-enforcement agencies in southern Oregon announced on Thursday that they had begun to investigate whether the Almeda fire had been deliberately set. The fire has burned hundreds of homes around Medford and is tied to two deaths. But the police chief of Ashland told The Oregonian that there was no evidence pointing to anti-fascist activists.

As the blazes rage across California, Oregon and Washington, family and friends are desperately searched for missing loved ones who remained unaccounted for.

Zygy Roe-Zurz, whose family lives in Berry Creek, Calif., said he had been waiting for days for news from his mother, his aunt and his uncle. On Thursday, he learned that his aunt was killed as the Bear Fire ripped through the community, and that his mother remained missing. Authorities told the family that Mr. Roe-Zurz’s uncle was likely dead as well, he said.

“I feel barren — this is a fathomless loss and I will never be the same,” said Mr. Roe-Zurz, 37, who is in Arkansas and last spoke to his mother on Tuesday night, before the flames intensified. “This cruel fire took everything.”

He said that his family members staying at the property in Berry Creek had been under the impression that the fire was getting under control, but that the situation changed dramatically as the Bear Fire jumped an astonishing 230,000 acres overnight Tuesday into Wednesday.

“It’s pretty much a nightmare scenario,” Mr. Roe-Zurz said. “I’m devastated.”

There was better news for other families who found out that loved ones they believed to be missing were found safe on Thursday.

Katy Carmel said her daughter, Natalie Anderson, had been on a camping trip with her boyfriend near the McKenzie Bridge east of Eugene, Ore. But when the Holiday Farm Fire broke out on Monday evening, Ms. Carmel could no longer reach Ms. Anderson.

Ms. Carmel could not sleep, fearing the worst. Days passed and the anxiety built. On Thursday, authorities notified the families that both Ms. Anderson and her boyfriend, Enmanuel Rodriguez, were safe and evacuated.

Ms. Carmel said she was relieved to hear the news, but added, “I’ll be better once she’s actually home.”

Credit…Kristina Barker for The New York Times

Smoke from wildfires, which can include toxic substances from burned buildings, has been linked to serious health problems.

Studies have shown that when waves of smoke hit, the rate of hospital visits rises and many of the additional patients experience respiratory problems, heart attacks and strokes.

The health effects of wildfire smoke don’t go away when skies clear. A recent study on Montana residents suggested a long tail for wildfire smoke exposure.

Erin Landguth, an associate professor in the school of public and community health science at the University of Montana and the lead author on the study, said research had shown that “after bad fire seasons, one would expect to see three to five times worse flu seasons” months later.

If you can’t leave an area that has high levels of smoke, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend limiting exposure by staying indoors with windows and doors closed and running air-conditioners in recirculation mode so that outside air isn’t drawn into your home.

Portable air purifiers are also recommended, though, like air-conditioners, they require electricity. If utilities cut off power, as has happened in California, those options are limited.

People who have power in their homes should avoid frying food, which can increase indoor smoke.

Experts say it is especially important to avoid cigarettes. They also recommend avoiding strenuous outdoor activities when the air is bad. When outside, well-fitted N95 masks are also recommended, though they are in short supply because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Some other masks, particularly tightly woven ones made of different layers of fabric, can provide “pretty good filtration,” if they are fitted closely to the face, said Sarah Henderson, senior scientist in environmental health services at the British Columbia Center for Disease Control.

Reporting was contributed by Davey Alba, Tim Arango, Mike Baker, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Maria Cramer, Kate Conger, Jill Cowan, Richard Fausset, Marie Fazio, Christopher Flavelle, Thomas Fuller, Jack Healy, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Jack Nicas, Bryan Pietsch, John Schwartz, Will Wright and Alan Yuhas.

Source: nytimes.com

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