Wild­fire death toll con­tin­ues to rise

Fa­tal­i­ties at 28 as haz­ardous smoke chokes West Coast

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - NATION & WORLD - By An­drew Selsky and Lind­say Whitehurst

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.”

MAX WHIT­TAKER/THE NEW YORK TIMES

The re­mains of Berry Creek Ele­men­tary School in the af­ter­math of the wild­fires Satur­day in Berry Creek, Cal­i­for­nia.

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