Wildfires scorch millions of acres in Western U.S. as Oregon braces for ‘mass fatality event’

Desiree Pierce cries as she visits her home destroyed by the Almeda Fire, Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in Talent, Ore. “I just needed to see it, to get some closure,” said Pierce.

John Locher | AP

Historic wildfires are burning millions of acres and destroying homes in California, Oregon and Washington state, as officials brace for more fatalities and evacuations.

The fires have killed at least 20 people across the states and dozens more are missing. More than 1 million acres of land in Oregon have been burned and at least 10% of the state’s population is in evacuation zones. The state has dealt with the worst destruction as blazes have already decimated two towns.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said Friday that people are still missing and more than 40,000 have fled their homes. The state is preparing for a “mass fatality event” and has declared a state of emergency.

Authorities said a man has been arrested and charged with arson in connection with a fire in southern Oregon that has burned hundreds of homes. Oregon’s state fire marshal Jim Walker, who has served since 2014, had been put on administrative leave “pending the outcome of an internal personnel investigation,” the state police department said on Saturday.

People stand in Alamo Square Park as smoke hangs over San Francisco, California, Sept. 9, 2020.

In California, more than 3 million acres have burned, a record in the state’s history. The August Complex that started from a series of lightning strikes last month has become the biggest wildfire ever in California.

The weather in California could potentially improve with forecasts of less wind and some rainfall. However, the National Weather Service on Saturday issued a red flag warning in parts of Oregon and Northern California over the weekend, citing gusty winds and low humidity that could worsen the blazes.

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California gave a bleak update on the situation on Friday afternoon, saying the worst forecasts of climate change has impacted his state. He vowed to direct his administration to speed up California’s environmental goals and invest more in green energy.

“California, folks, is America fast forward,” Newsom said during a press conference at the Lake Oroville State Recreation Area in Butte County, which is damaged from the North Complex Fire. “What we’re experiencing right here is coming to communities all across the United States of America unless we get our act together on climate change.”

President Donald Trump will visit California on Monday where he will join local and federal fire and emergency officials to be briefed on the fires. The president is set to visit McClellan Park in Sacramento County, where the state’s fire agency Cal Fire has based its operations.

Volunteer firefighter Dave White looks on after losing his home in a fire, in Gates, Oregon, on September 10, 2020.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the amount of land burned by the fires in just the past five days amounts to the state’s second-worst fire season following the season in 2015, and said the fires should be called climate fires, not wildfires. Fires in the state destroyed most of the homes in the town of Malden and killed a 1-year-old boy.

Climate change has triggered excessive heat and drought conditions across the world that exacerbate wildfires. In fire-prone California, six of the 20 biggest wildfires in state history have occurred this year.

“This is not an act of God,” Inslee said at a news conference Friday. “This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday said that the state is sending roughly 190 additional firefighters and 50 more trucks to California. Fire crews are also being sent in from Utah and Colorado.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said the fires demonstrate that climate change poses an “existential threat to our way of life.”

“Our thoughts are also with the millions of Americans living just outside the path of these fires, forced into an awful choice between relocating in the midst of an ongoing pandemic or staying put in a place where every breath they draw forces them to inhale smoke,” Biden said in a statement on Saturday.

“The science is clear, and deadly signs like these are unmistakable — climate change poses an imminent, existential threat to our way of life,” Biden said. “President Trump can try to deny that reality, but the facts are undeniable.”

A car is seen around the town where about 10,000 residents were evacuated as the fire continues, in Molalla, Oregon, September 11, 2020.

Credit: CNBC

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