Death toll rises as wildfires ravage US West Coast

The National Weather Service issues a ‘red flag warning’ amid conditions that could stoke the blazes in some areas.

Oregon Fire
Officials say the number of fatalities is likely to rise [John Locher/AP Photo]

The death toll from wildfires that have ravaged the United States’ West Coast has risen to 33 as the National Weather Service has issued a “red flag warning” amid high winds and dry conditions in Oregon and some California counties.

Authorities said the conditions are expected to “contribute to a significant spread of new and existing fires”, amid days of blazes across the states of California, Oregon and Washington that have destroyed neighbourhoods and forest land, leaving barren and grey landscapes the size of New Jersey.

At least 10 people have been killed in the past week throughout Oregon. Officials have said more people are missing from other blazes, and the number of fatalities is likely to rise. Twenty-two people have died in California since early August, and one person has been killed in Washington state.

‘Unprecedented’ wildfires rage across western US

On Sunday, search and rescue teams, with dogs in tow, were deployed across the blackened ruins of southern Oregon towns. 

At least 35 active fires were burning in the state, as drought conditions, extreme temperatures, and high winds created the “perfect firestorm” for the blazes to grow, Governor Kate Brown told CBS news on Sunday.

Crews in Jackson County, Oregon were hoping to venture into rural areas where the Alameda Fire has abated slightly with slowing winds, sending up thick plumes of smoke as the embers burned. From Medford through the neighbouring communities of Phoenix and Talent, an apocalyptic scene of charred residential subdivisions and trailer parks stretched for miles along Highway 99.

After four days of brutally hot, windy weather, the weekend brought calmer winds blowing inland from the Pacific Ocean, and cooler, moister conditions that helped crews make headway against blazes that had burned unchecked earlier in the week.

Still, emergency officials worried that the shifting weather might not be enough to quell the fires.

“We’re concerned that the incoming front is not going to provide a lot of rain here in the Medford region and it’s going to bring increased winds,” Bureau of Land Management spokesman Kyle Sullivan told Reuters news agency.

In California, nearly 17,000 firefighters were battling 29 major wildfires, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). Improving weather conditions had helped them gain a measure of containment over most of the blazes.

More than 4,000 homes and other structures have been incinerated in the state alone over the past three weeks. Three million acres of land have been burned in the state, according to Cal Fire. 

Air quality

The heavy smoke that has painted California skies orange has also helped fire crews corral the state’s deadliest blaze this year by blocking the sun, reducing temperatures and raising humidity.

The smoke created cooler conditions in Oregon as well. But it was also blamed for creating the dirtiest air in at least 35 years in some places, which the state’s environmental quality spokesperson described as “literally off the charts”.

On Saturday, all five of the world’s most air-polluted cities were on the US West Coast, according to IQAir, with dense smog and ash coating the atmosphere from Los Angeles up to Vancouver in Canada. 

In Portland, residents stuffed towels under door jambs to keep smoke out or wore N95 masks in their own homes.

Role of climate change

The three Democratic leaders of California, Oregon and Washing blamed the states’ dire conditions on climate change.

“It’s maddening right now we have this cosmic challenge to our communities, the entire West Coast of the United States on fire, to have a president to deny that these are not just wildfires, these are climate fires,” Washington State Governor Jay Inslee told ABC’s “This Week” programme.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said it was “undeniable” the extreme circumstances were connected to climate change. 

Trump, for his part, is set to visit California on Monday and meet with federal and state officials.

He has said that western governors bear some of the blame for intense fire seasons in recent years, and has accused them of poor forest management.

“They never had anything like this,” said Trump, who systematically downplays global warming, at a campaign event in Nevada. “Please remember the words, very simple: forest management.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies