Wildfire death toll continues to rise
Fatalities at 28 as hazardous smoke chokes West Coast
SALEM, Ore. — Choking smoke that posed a health hazard to millions blanketed the West Coast on Saturday as firefighters battled deadly wildfires that obliterated some towns and created tens of thousands of refugees, the latest in a series of calamities this year.
For people enduring the coronavirus pandemic, the resulting economic fallout and political tensions evident in the Black Lives Matter protests and farright counter protests, the fires added a new layer of misery.
“What’s next? You have the protests, coronavirus pandemic, now the wildfires. What else can go wrong?” lamented Danielle Oliver, 40, of Happy Valley, southeast of Portland.
The known death toll from fires in the three states stood at 28 and was expected to rise sharply. Most of the deaths were in California and Oregon.
Oregon’s emergency management director said officials were preparing for a possible “mass fatality event” if many more bodies turn up in the ash. And the state fire marshal, Jim Walker, resigned after abruptly being placed on administrative leave. The state police superintendent, Travis Hampton, said the crisis demanded an urgent response that required a leadership change
Oliver has an autoimmune disorder that makes her vulnerable to wildfire smoke, so she agreed to evacuate. She was nervous about going to a shelter because of the virus, but sleeping in a car with her husband, 15-year-old daughter, two dogs and a cat was not a viable option.
The temperature checks and social distancing at the American Red Cross shelter help put her mind at ease. Now the family waits, hoping their house will survive. She has previously experienced homelessness.
“I’m tired. I’m tired of starting all over. Getting everything, working for everything, then losing everything,” she said.
Those who still had homes were not safe in them. A half-million Oregonians were under evacuation warnings or orders to leave. With air contamination levels at historic highs, people stuffed towels against door jambs to keep smoke out. Some even wore N95 masks in their own homes.
Some communities resembled the bombed-out cities of Europe after World War II, with buildings reduced to charred rubble piled atop blackened earth. Residents either managed to flee as the flames closed in, or perished.
In Oregon alone, more than 40,000 people have been evacuated and about 500,000 are in different levels of evacuation zones, Gov. Kate Brown said.
Fires along Oregon’s Cascade Range grew Saturday, but at a slower rate than earlier in the week when strong easterly winds acted like a bellows, pushing two large fires — the Beachie Creek Fire and the Riverside Fire — toward each other and the state’s major population centers, including Portland’s southeastern suburbs, wildfire managers reported.
Fire managers did get good news: Higher humidity slowed the flames considerably.
In California, a total of 28 active major fires have burned 4,375 square miles, and 16,000 firefighters are trying to suppress the flames, Cal Fire Assistant Deputy Director Daniel Berlant said. Large wildfires continued to burn in northeastern Washington state.
President Donald Trump will visit California on Monday for a briefing on the fires, the White House announced.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and the governors of California, Oregon and Washington state — all Democrats — have said the fires are a consequence of global warming.
The same smoke that painted California skies orange also helped crews corral the state’s deadliest blaze of the year by blocking the sun, reducing temperatures and raising humidity, officials said.
Smoke created cooler conditions in Oregon too, but it was also blamed for possibly the dirtiest air in at least 35 years in parts of the state. The air quality index reading Saturday morning in Salem, the state capital, was 512.
The scale normally goes from zero to 500.
“Above 500 is literally off the charts,” said Laura Gleim, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Portland has never seen air quality this bad since the department started monitoring there in 1985.
The smoke in Portland filled the air with a scent like dull pennies. It was so thick that Ashley Kreitzer could not see the road when she headed out to work as a ride-sharing driver.
“I couldn’t even see five feet ahead of me,” she said. “I was panicking, I didn’t even know if I wanted to go out.”
The remains of Berry Creek Elementary School in the aftermath of the wildfires Saturday in Berry Creek, California.