Wildfires searing through the American west have killed at least seven people, leveled entire neighborhoods and displaced tens of thousands, forcing stretched firefighting crews to make tough decisions about where to deploy.
In Oregon, fire conditions not seen in three decades fueled massive blazes that have killed at least three people, destroyed at least five towns and forced the evacuation of communities from the southern border to the Portland suburbs. In Washington state, a one-year-old boy died after his family was apparently overrun by flames trying to flee a wildfire.
And in northern California’s Butte county, where the town of Paradise was devastated by the deadly Camp fire in 2018, at least three people have died and 12 are missing amid the North Complex fire currently burning through the region.
Oregon governor Kate Brown on Wednesday warned her state may see more hardship, warning of what could be “the greatest loss of life and structures due to wildfire in state history”.
Doug Grafe, the chief of fire protection at the Oregon forestry department, said the emergency comes amid “unprecedented times”.
Two of the deaths occurred in Marion county, where the sheriff late on Wednesday confirmed two people fleeing the uncontained Santiam fire had been found dead in their car. The sheriff’s office later posted a news story to their Facebook page, identifying the pair as a 12-year old boy and his grandmother.
The deaths occurred 30 miles downstream from Detroit, Oregon, one of five towns in the state that Brown said had been “substantially destroyed” in a series of conflagrations concentrated in the state’s more populous western third. The fires have already consumed “hundreds of homes”.
The Santiam fire forced the evacuation of the whole of the eastern portion of Marion county, and shrouded Salem in thick smoke, which cast an eerie, blood red light on Oregon’s state capital for much of Wednesday.
Another death was confirmed in Jackson county in the state’s far south, where Sheriff Nate Sickler told a press briefing the Almeda fire had claimed at least one life. That fire started in Ashland on Tuesday and moved quickly north, destroying the towns of Talent and Phoenix, and forcing the evacuation of much of the city of Medford.
Sickler said that fire is now the subject of a criminal investigation, which is seeking to determine whether it was deliberately lit.
Two other towns that were destroyed, Blue River and Vida, are located on the banks of the McKenzie River, east of the city of Eugene, and some sixty miles south of the Santiam Canyon.
This week’s fires did not just affect rural areas: Wednesday saw evacuation orders in Clackamas county, including southeastern suburbs of Portland, and rural parts of Washington county, which also takes in the city’s western suburbs.
By Wednesday evening, that city was blanketed with smoke from fires burning around its forested southeastern fringe, and in rural areas to the southwest.
The explosion of fires across the region were stoked by dry winds, and a record heat wave – and fueled widespread drought, which dried out vegetation into kindling.
The early part of the week saw gusts of up to 50mph in western areas, downing trees and power lines in Portland and other cities. The rare weather, more characteristic of winter storms in the region, was accompanied by historically low relative humidity.
The conditions led to an unprecedented “extremely critical” fire weather warning for southern Oregon on Monday, and only the second such warning in state history for northwest Oregon.
A week earlier, on 3 September, parts of the Portland metro area recorded their highest ever temperature for that date. Like much of the rest of the country, Oregon has recorded higher than average temperatures throughout the summer. In addition, much of the state, including Jackson county, is in moderate to severe drought, with Oregon’s climate office pointing to extremely dry soils as a contributing factor to the wildfires.
In Washington state, a one-year-old boy died after his family was apparently overrun by flames while trying to flee a wildfire, Okanogan county sheriff Tony Hawley said. Fires have more than 750 sq miles (1,900 sq km) of forest, brush and shrubland in the state, the governor, Jay Inslee said Wednesday.
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”.
“California, Oregon, Washington, we are all in the same soup of cataclysmic fire,” the governor said.
California, which has been battling a barrage of fires since August, has within the last few weeks seen the first, third, fourth, ninth, 10th and 18th-largest wildfires in state history, according to the National Weather Service.
By Thursday, the deadly North Complex fire, which has been growing explosively, has displaced about 20,000 and destroyed hundreds or possibly thousands of homes, authorities said. The town of Oroville, which three years ago was evacuated when heavy rains threatened to collapse a major dam, were evacuated once again as the flames charged toward it.
“Time and time again we have seen how dangerous wildfires can be. So I ask that you please, please please be prepared, maintain situational awareness and heed the warnings,” said Butte county sheriff Kory Honea.
In the town of Paradise, Wednesday’s conditions – cherry skies and falling ash – reminded many of the fire that killed 85 people in 2019. “It was extremely frightening and ugly,” said former Mayor Steve “Woody” Culleton. “Everybody has PTSD and whatnot, so it triggered everybody and caused terror and panic.”
Even in the midst of its dry, hot, windy fire season, California has experienced wildfires advancing with unprecedented speed and ferocity. Since the middle of August, fires in California have killed 12 people, destroyed more than 3,600 buildings, burned old growth redwoods, charred chaparral and forced evacuations in communities near the coast, in wine country north of San Francisco and along the Sierra Nevada.
In some areas of the San Francisco Bay Area and to the east in the Sacramento Valley, smoke blocked out so much sunlight on Wednesday that it dropped the temperature by 20 to 30 degrees over the previous day, according to the National Weather Service.
The US Forest Service, which had taken the unprecedented measure of closing eight national forests in southern California earlier in the week, ordered all 18 of its forests in the state closed Wednesday for public safety.
Fires burned in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. People in foothill communities east of LA were warned to be ready to flee, but the region’s notorious Santa Ana winds were weaker than predicted.
“We’re encouraged that the wind activity appears to be dying down,” Governor Gavin Newsom said. “The rest of the week looks a little more favorable.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report