ESTACADA, Ore. (AP) — Windblown wildfires raging across the Pacific Northwest destroyed hundreds of homes in Oregon, the governor said Wednesday, warning: “This could be the greatest loss of human life and property due to wildfire in our state’s history.”
Firefighters struggled to contain and douse the blazes fanned by 50 mph wind gusts and officials in some western Oregon communities gave residents “go now” orders to evacuate, meaning they had minutes to flee their homes.
The destructive blazes were burning in a large swath of Washington state and Oregon that rarely experiences such intense fire activity because of the Pacific Northwest’s cool and wet climate.
The fires trapped firefighters and civilians behind fire lines in Oregon and leveled an entire small town in eastern Washington.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown warned that the devastation could be overwhelming from the fires that exploded Monday during a late-summer wind storm.
“Everyone must be on high alert,” Brown said. “The next several days are going to be extremely difficult.”
At least three people were killed in Oregon fires and Brown said some communities were substantially damaged, with “hundreds of homes lost.”
The precise 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.
“Quite frankly, we are not even able to get into these areas,” she said.
Near Portland in Clackamas County, sheriff’s deputies were traveling with chainsaws in their patrol cars to cut up fallen trees blocking roads — and giving residents of threatened rural areas and those near communities several minutes notice to evacuate.
“These winds are so incredible and are spreading so fast, we don’t have a lot of time,” said Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts.
The Beachie Creek Fire has been renamed the Santiam Fire and burning on both sides of Highway 22 near Detroit has scorched more than 159,000 acres after it sparked from a down power line and other ignition sources in the area. It has merged with the Lionshead Fire on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Lionshead is now burning more than 105,000 acres.
The Holiday Farm Fire burning 105,000 acres in the McKenzie River area near Springfield and has destroyed dozens of buildings and homes.
Crews from Bend Fire & Rescue were on their way there Wednesday morning to help.
Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, with U.S. Representatives Peter DeFazio, Earl Blumenauer, Greg Walden, Kurt Schrader, and Suzanne Bonamici, on Wednesday requested rapid approval of Brown’s request for federal disaster relief, as unprecedented wildfires ravage the state.
“Given the severity and speed in which these fires are spreading across the state, we urge you to expedite the declaration process to ensure that local communities have the resources they need to respond to and recover quickly from these devastating wildfires,” the delegation wrote in a letter to the president.
The Pacific Northwest is no stranger to wildfires, but most of the biggest ones until now have been in the eastern or southern parts of the region — where the weather is considerably hotter and drier and the vegetation more fire-prone than it is in the western portion of the region.
Fires in 2017 and 2018 crested the top of the Cascade Mountains — the long spine that divides dry eastern Oregon from the lush western part of the state — but never before spread into the valleys below, said Doug Grafe, chief of Fire Protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry.
“We do not have a context for this amount of fire on the landscape,” he said. “Seeing them run down the canyons the way they have — carrying tens of miles in one period of an afternoon and not slowing down in the evening – (there is) absolutely no context for that in this environment.”