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Society

Fires Without Precedent Rage in Usually Cool, Wet Northwest

September 10, 2020

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Numerous wildfires burned in Oregon's forested valleys and along the coast, destroying hundreds of homes and causing mass evacuations. Farther north, flames devoured buildings and huge tracts of land in Washington state.

Officials said the number of simultaneous fires and perhaps the damage caused was unprecedented. Several deaths were reported, including a 1-year-old boy in Washington state. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said communities have been "substantially destroyed" and warned there could be numerous fatalities.

Because of its cool, wet climate, the Pacific Northwest rarely experiences such intense fire activity. But climate change driven by human-caused greenhouse gases is expected to keep warming the region, with most models predicting drier summers, according to the College of the Environment at the University of Washington.

Brown said Oregon could see the greatest loss of life and property from wildfires in state history. The small towns of Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon were heavily damaged. Another fire leveled most of the small farming town of Malden in eastern Washington — burning down the fire station, post office, City Hall and library.

In Washington state, a fire burned more than 480,000 acres of forest, brush and shrubland, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday after a 30-minute tour of the fire area in Sumner, east of Tacoma. 

Inslee said low humidity, high temperatures and winds combined to likely make the blaze one of "the most catastrophic fires we've had in the history of the state." 

Fires erupted along Interstate 5 in Oregon, hitting towns and forcing a shutdown of the main freeway along the West Coast. U.S. Highway 101, the main coastal highway running through California, Oregon and Washington, was also impacted.

At least three people in Oregon and the small child in Washington state were reported killed. In Oregon, authorities said one of the victims from Marion County near Salem was a young boy, whose remains were found alongside those of his dog.

The extent of damage was unclear because so many of the fire zones were too dangerous to survey, said Oregon Deputy State Fire Marshal Mariana Ruiz-Temple.

A mandatory evacuation was ordered in the northern half of Lincoln City, a vacation town of about 10,000 people on the Oregon coast. "The fire is in the city," said county Emergency Management spokesman Casey Miller. 

Some buildings had been burned, Miller said, but he had no immediate details. Traffic snarled as people tried to drive south. An evacuation center was set up at a community college in Newport.

In Talent, a mobile home park with more than 50 homes was turned into an empty lot except for one lone trailer, said Drew Cutler, who lives in nearby Ashland.

In western Oregon, fire tore through Santiam Canyon and the Cascade Range foothills east of Salem, the state capital. People with animals sought shelter from the Red Cross at the fairgrounds

Catherine Shields evacuated her home in Silverton with a menagerie of animals, assisted by neighbors and strangers. As smoke obscured the sun and ash fell from the sky, they helped load her and her partner's three horses, a donkey, two llamas, a dozen sheep, geese, ducks, turkeys and dogs onto trailers and vehicles.

As she walked one of the horses at the fairgrounds Wednesday, she marveled at how people were pulling together despite political divisiveness in the country.

"In the last 24 hours, we just felt people are doing their best," Shields said.

With an expected break in the weather Thursday, Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry, said firefighters are hoping to turn things around. 

"Today marks the last day where we are witnessing this historic weather event," Grafe said. 

Officials said winds have slowed and cooler marine winds were expected. 

In Washington, a 1-year-old boy died after his family was apparently overrun by flames while trying to flee a wildfire burning in the northeastern part of the state, Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley said Wednesday.

KOIN reported  that police confirmed that a boy and his grandmother died in a wildfire near Lyons, Oregon. The Mail Tribune in Medford, Oregon, reported that Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler confirmed at least one death and a criminal investigation at the origin point of a wildfire that started near Ashland.

Lloyd Dean Holland, a Vietnam veteran, barely escaped his home in Estacada on Tuesday night.

Holland said Oregon State Police had warned him to leave earlier in the day, but the fire seemed far away and he decided to stay. Around 10 p.m., he said, his landlord came pounding on the door screaming at him to go. 

He left his rental house as flames exploded in cedar trees around him. He found his dog Gus waiting in his truck.

 He said his sole remaining possessions — rifles, dentures and some clothing — were also in the truck.

"I've been through hell and high water but nothing like this. I've been shot down and shot at but this — last night, I'm still not over it," Holland said.

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