Crews battle U.S. West Coast fires amid 'apocalyptic' scenes of ruin

by Reuters
Thursday, 17 September 2020 16:51 GMT

A hotshots crew walks back after working on a fire line near Mount Wilson Observatory while battling the Bobcat Fire in Los Angeles, California, U.S., September 14, 2020. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

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Thousands are sheltering in Oregon as fire crews battle wildfire that have swept the U.S. West

By Brad Brooks

MOLALLA, Ore., Sept 17 (Reuters) - With resources stretched to the limit, weary crews fought to make progress on Thursday against deadly wildfires sweeping the western United States, with a U.S. senator who toured hard-hit Oregon saying it looked like the aftermath of World War Two firebombings.

Scores of fires have burned some 3.2 million acres (1.3 million hectares) in California since mid-August and another 1.6 million acres (647,500 hectares) in Oregon and Washington state since Labor Day on Sept. 7, laying waste to several small towns, destroying thousands of homes and claiming at least 34 lives.

U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon described driving 600 miles (965 km) in his state to get a firsthand look at the devastation, visiting refugee centers, fire control centers and towns burned by the blazes.

"That 600 miles, I never got out of the smoke. I remember fires in the past where I was driving and I would be in the smoke for 20 or 30 minutes - that's a big fire. This is apocalyptic," Merkley told CNN. "To see ... these towns burnt to the ground, it looks like a World War Two town hit by firebombing - thousands of homes destroyed, residences destroyed."

Merkley said a lot of affordable housing was lost, including apartment buildings and mobile home parks, while some commercial districts were burned to the ground.

"It's overwhelming," the Democratic senator added.

The West Coast wildfires have filled the region's skies with smoke and soot.

Air quality along portions of the western U.S. coastline, from Olympic National Park in Washington state to San Francisco, was the clearest in days on Thursday. Smoke levels abated enough on Wednesday that environmental agencies lifted an air quality advisory for coastal Oregon and southeastern Washington.

Several miles (km) inland, air in the Oregon cities of Portland, Salem and Bend still registered as "hazardous" on Thursday, according to a state air quality tracking site.

Kyle Sullivan, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Medford, Oregon, said the clearing smoke has allowed more firefighting to take place in the air with helicopters and planes dropping retardant.

"We haven't seen a lot of significant fire growth (this week). It hasn't been super windy or super hot," Sullivan said.

Eight deaths have been confirmed in Oregon. One fire-related fatality has been confirmed in Washington state.

With the potential for some rain beginning on Friday in affected areas of Oregon, weather conditions may help the fight.

"We are anticipating a small amount of moisture coming in this weekend, but it's not going to be enough to end the fire season. It'll help with firefighting efforts, but we're still anxious about the potential for new starts," Sullivan added.

'DREAMING OF FIRE'

Drew Hansen, a 31-year-old logger raised on a tree farm near Molalla, Oregon, about an hour south of Portland, was part of a volunteer firefighting force battling the Riverside and Beachie Creek fires since Sept. 8.

"This is my backyard, we're fighting for our homes and families up here," Hansen said as he and a crew rested outside his parents' farmhouse, about five miles (8 km) southeast of Molalla. "It feels like we've not slept in a week. Even when I have slept, I'm dreaming of fire."

Oregon is unaccustomed to the size and number of blazes that it has been experiencing, which have gained ground due to drought conditions and high winds. With improved weather finally enabling fire crews to take the offensive, crews have worked to beat back the state's largest blaze this season - the 190,000-acre (76,900-hectare) Beachie Creek fire. It was 20% contained as of Thursday morning.

Cooler weather and increasing humidity on Thursday was expected to help firefighting efforts in California, but authorities said warmer and drier weather over the weekend would bring more fire danger.

California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said more than 17,400 firefighters combated 26 fires on Thursday while the state's death toll stood at 25. Some 5,400 structures have been destroyed since mid-August, it said.

"While progress was made on a number of fires, several others saw growth due to increased fire behavior and firing operations," the agency said.

The so-called Bobcat fire burning north of Los Angeles remains one of the more worrisome in California at just 3% containment. It has burned more than 50,500 acres (20,400 hectares) since Sept. 6, authorities said. Fresh evacuations have been ordered in the Antelope Valley in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains north of Los Angeles.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks and Deborah Bloom in Portland; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter; Writing by Will Dunham; editing by Jonathan Oatis)