Thursday, September 23, 2021

in-focus

Ore. officials say wildfires could be 'mass fatality incident' after a million acres burn


Oregon officials are concerned they may find a "mass fatality incident" as they survey the wreckage of roughly three dozen fast-moving wildfires that have cut a destructive path through more than a million acres of land this week.

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At least five people have died in the blazes, according to a state-run dashboard. Andrew Phelps, director of the state's Office of Emergency Management, acknowledged Friday at a news conference that there were fatalities but declined to provide details.

"We know we're dealing with fire-related death, and we're preparing for a mass fatality incident based on what we know and the number of structures that have been lost," he said.

Oregon defines a mass fatality incident as one that causes death and suffering "that cannot be met through usual individual and community resources."

Gov. Kate Brown, D, who described the wildfires as a "once-in-a-generation event" earlier this week, said Friday that dozens of people across the state were missing as a result of the blazes. The wildfires have put an estimated 500,000 residents - over 10% of the state's population - under an evacuation warning or order, and Brown said about 40,000 people have evacuated.

Much of the West Coast has been ablaze for days in an event known as a compound disaster, which climate scientists warn is an inevitable result of human-caused climate change. Tens of millions of people's lives have been affected by the wildfires, which have caused scorching heat and smoke-filled skies.

While the National Weather Service said air quality in the Portland area was expected to start gradually improving Friday after days of smoke, the situation there remained dire. Air quality monitoring website IQAir.com reported that four of the five major cities worldwide with the most air pollution were on the west coast of North America: Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and San Francisco.

A Northern California wildfire that has burned through more than 250,000 acres of land has now killed at least 10 people, part of a brutal fire season that includes six of the 20 largest wildfires in the state's history.

Butte County sheriff's officials confirmed seven additional deaths from the North Complex Fire on Thursday and said 16 people remain missing in the state's deadliest blaze this year. A total of 19 people have died in California wildfires in 2020, fire officials said Friday.

In Oregon, the number of evacuees spiked Thursday when many residents left communities in Clackamas County, the state's third-most populous county, which borders Portland, said Paula Fasano Negele, a spokeswoman for the OEM.

Those evacuations came after officials warned in a news conference that the Riverside Fire, which originated in Clackamas County, was expected to merge with another one of the state's largest wildfires, the Beachie Creek Fire of Marion County. Those two wildfires have scorched more than 300,000 acres at about zero percent containment, decimated homes and businesses, and left thousands displaced, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.

"I'm here, and I still can't even fathom what's happening," Negele told The Washington Post early Friday.

Improving weather meant firefighters should be able to move from a defensive stance to an offensive one in the next few days, Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry, said Friday at a news conference. He said fire officials were most concerned about 16 fires, some of which are likely to remain active until the heavy rains of late fall.

Grafe warned that the Riverside, Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires, which are burning east of Salem, are responsible for some of the state's "most dramatic fire growth."

"We have not seen the likes of this fire in this state integrated with our communities ever before," he said.

As the Beachie Creek and Riverside fires continued to move closer to each other on Friday, Holly Krake, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, told the Statesman Journal that the convergence of smoke plumes from the fires could cause erratic wind shifts and other weather events. She said those conditions would make it harder for firefighters to combat the blaze and heighten the risk for people in the fire's path.

Late Thursday, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., announced that President Donald Trump had approved Oregon's request for an emergency declaration, which, he tweeted, would include federal aid from FEMA to provide temporary housing for displaced residents and additional firefighting resources.

In addition to the wildfires, Oregon officials also battled misinformation about the cause of the blazes. Several law enforcement agencies went on social media to dispel rumors that far-left or far-right antagonists had purposely caused some of the outbreaks.

"Rumors spread just like wildfire and now our 9-1-1 dispatchers and professional staff are being overrun with requests for information and inquiries on an UNTRUE rumor that 6 Antifa members have been arrested for setting fires in DOUGLAS COUNTY, OREGON," the Douglas County Sheriff's Office said on Facebook.

As the plumes of smoke covering the Oregon sky blotted out the sun, communities throughout the state prepared for the pending disaster they had seen play out in southern cities such as Talent and Phoenix, where entire communities were destroyed.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, D, issued an emergency order Thursday night to close city parks and other outdoor properties for the next two weeks. The Oregon Convention Center transformed into a shelter for as many as 400 evacuees, offering a socially distanced space operated by the Red Cross for those in need of food, supplies or a hot shower.

Angel Fujiyoshi, who had evacuated to the convention center from Oregon City, told KPTV that she left behind almost everything except her grandmother's remains to secure shelter 15 miles away.

"I was able to grab her ashes, but other than that, we had to leave everything else behind to save our own lives, basically," Fujiyoshi told the outlet.

Clackamas County enacted a curfew Friday to keep people who are not working to save lives or property off the road at night, and officials there asked people who were not under urgent evacuation orders to delay travel so those in the most danger could leave the area.

At the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, also in Clackamas County, all 1,303 inmates were evacuated and moved to another prison as wildfires have threatened to merge, the Salem Statesman Journal reported. The move came after three other prisons around Salem, the state capital, evacuated in recent days.

In Molalla, Ore., located in Clackamas County about 30 miles south of Portland, police rolled through the streets to emphasize the mandatory evacuation order by repeating over the loudspeaker, "Evacuate now." One of those who fled from Molalla was Michael Smelser, who joined his family and their puppy in gathering whatever they could take in their RV over to the Clackamas Town Center in Happy Valley.

Speaking to KPTV in the parking lot of the center, Smelser admitted it was difficult to sleep knowing there's a good chance his family's house, and everything they built together, had been reduced to ashes.

"You would want a big semi-truck to grab everything," Smelser said. "We told [our daughter], 'Grab the toys you don't want to burn.' It's hard to do to your kid. Say, 'Hey, grab the toys, if you leave them here, they could burn.' It's hard to do."

Published : September 12, 2020

By : The Washington Post · by Timothy Bella, Marisa Iati · NATIONAL, SCIENCE-ENVIRONMENT