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US wildfires: Half a million people flee dozens of blazes, 16 killed

AFP/Fresno, United States
Filed on September 11, 2020
wildfires, flee, united states, oregon, washington wildfires, flee, united states, oregon, washington


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The Reyes family looks at the destruction of their home at Coleman Creek Estates mobile home park in Phoenix, Ore., Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020.
(AP)

The true scale of destruction was hard to gauge across wide stretches of California, Oregon and Washington.

Crews battled sprawling wildfires up and down the US West Coast on Friday in a wave of infernos that have killed at least 16 people and forced more than half a million others to flee their homes.

The true scale of destruction was hard to gauge across wide stretches of California, Oregon and Washington that were cut off by flames fuelled by record heat and intense, dry winds. 

The August Complex Fire became the biggest recorded blaze in Californian history on Thursday, after multiple fires in the state's northwest combined under high temperatures and winds to rip through 746,000 acres of dry vegetation.

More than 2.6 million acres have been burned across the whole state so far, a Cal Fire spokesman said late Thursday. And the state has not yet hit the peak of the fire season.

Half a million people have been evacuated in neighbouring Oregon to the north, where the government said firefighters were "prioritizing life (and) safety as they battle a record 900,000 acres of wildfires."

Governor Kate Brown said the area incinerated in just the last 72 hours was twice the state's annual average, and that at least five towns had been "substantially destroyed."

"We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across our state," she told a press conference. 

Huge wildfires are becoming more common, with the World Meteorological Organization saying the five years to 2019 was unprecedented for fires, especially in Europe and North America.  

Climate change amplifies droughts which dry out regions, creating ideal conditions for wildfires to spread out-of-control and inflict unprecedented material and environmental damage. 

- 'Leave your house' -

Oregon officials confirmed two deaths in the Santiam Canyon region south of Portland, and a third in the Ashland area, near the California border.

Police went door to door to make sure that residents were evacuating the city of Molalla, marking their driveways with spray paint to show they had left.

"It's one thing to leave your house, it's another thing being told that you have to leave," said Denise Pentz, a resident of the town for 11 years, who was loading her family belongings into a camping trailer.

Among those killed was a one-year-old boy who perished while his parents suffered severe burns as they attempted to flee an inferno 130 miles east of Seattle.

"This child's family and community will never be the same," said Washington governor Jay Inslee, in a statement on his state's first fire death of 2020.

- 'Glowing red' -

Police said the death toll stood at 10 in northern California's Butte County as of Thursday evening. 

In the fire-ravaged hillside hamlet of Berry Creek, county animal control officer Lynette Brennan said she had been through fires before in her eight years on the job and the hardest part is seeing people she knows lose their homes for good.

"It's daunting. You see everything destroyed," Brennan told the Los Angeles Times while waiting at a roadside for firefighters to take delivery of two injured dogs.

"You know they lost everything, and there is no recouping that," Brennan said.

One unidentified person was killed in far northern California, near the remote rural community of Happy Camp, a Cal Fire spokeswoman told AFP.

Tina Rose, 29, fled her home in central California after witnessing a nearby mountain "glowing red" from looming wildfires.

"It is something we never want to experience again," she told AFP, speaking from her brother-in-law's crowded home near Fresno.

In the San Francisco area, Wednesday's deep orange sky caused by wildfire smoke gave way to a wintry gray, but cars were still forced to drive with lights on in the gloom.

Polluted air meant schools and daycare centres were no longer letting children play outside, while seniors were encouraged to stay inside.

But the strong, dry winds of the past days eased off across much of the state, with severe weather warnings lifted for most of California. 

Humidity is expected to rise as temperatures cool through to next week, providing some relief, Cal Fire said.

- Climate change blamed -

Much of the smoke has blown down from the north, where the Bear Fire exploded at an unprecedented speed this week, combining with older blazes to threaten the town of Oroville.

Evacuation warnings were expanded for parts of the town of Paradise, the site of California's deadliest modern fire, which killed 86 people less than two years ago.

California has seen more than 3.1 million acres burn this year -- an annual record, with nearly four months of fire season still to come.

Governor Gavin Newsom blamed the ferocity of this year's fires on climate change.

"We must do more," he tweeted. "We need action at EVERY level. CA cannot do this alone. Climate change is REAL."



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