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“Evacuate Now:” Wildfires Grow in Oregon as 500K Flee

September 11, 2020

PHOENIX, Ore. — 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. 

People evacuated statewide because of fires had climbed to an estimated 500,000 — more than 10 percent of the 4.2 million people in the state, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management reported late Thursday. 

One fire approached Molalla, triggering a mandatory evacuation order for the community of about 9,000 people located 30 miles (48 kilometers) 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.

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 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," Guterrez said of his neighbors at Talent Mobile Estates. "We're living day by day."

As the fire approached Phoenix, Jonathan Weir defied evacuation orders, even as flames 30 feet (9 meters) high shot from trees. Fearing for his life, he drove his car to the entrance of a nearby mobile home park, where his tires began melting. His home was destroyed as the fire hopscotched through the town of 4,000 residents.

"There were flames across the street from me, flames to the right of me, flames to the left of me. I just watched everything burn," Weir told a reporter.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated that 600 homes were burned by the fire that started in Ashland and tore through Phoenix, the Mail Tribune of Medford reported.

Oregon officials haven't released an exact death count for the wildfires but at least four fatalities have been reported in the state. One person was killed in wildfires in Washington.

Oregon officials were shocked by the number of simultaneous fires, which stood at 37 Thursday, according to the state Office of Emergency Management.

Gov. Kate Brown said more than 900,000 acres (364,000 hectares) — 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. 

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." 

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