US President Donald Trump has declared a major state of disaster in the state of Oregon, the latest and most concentrated hotspot in an outbreak of wildfires sweeping the western United States, as fire crews battled on against the blazes and search teams scoured the ruins of demolished homes for those still missing.
Tuesday’s presidential disaster declaration makes federal funding available to affected individuals across several Oregon counties, for grants, temporary housing home repairs, and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, the White House said in a statement.
Dozens of wildfires have burned across some 1.8 million hectares (4.5 million acres) in California, Oregon and Washington state since August, ravaging several small towns, destroying thousands of homes and killing at least three dozen people.
Kate Brown, the governor of Oregon, said the state “has been pushed to its limits”.
“Oregon is resilient, but to fight fires on this scale, we need all the help we can get,” she said in a Twitter post thanking Trump for the disaster declaration.
Brown said the emergency funds will be used for search and rescue, damage assessments and to provide shelter for those affected.
Oregon is resilient, but to fight fires on this scale, we need all the help we can get. Grateful we've been quickly granted a Presidential Disaster Declaration, helping provide support like damage assessment teams, search & rescue, debris management, shelter & medical assistance.
— Governor Kate Brown (@OregonGovBrown) September 15, 2020
Ten deaths have been confirmed during the past week in Oregon, while at least 25 people have died in California wildfires since mid-August. One death has been confirmed in Washington state.
More than 6,200 homes and other structures have been lost, according to figures from all three states.
At last count, some 16 people reported missing by friends or family remained unaccounted for in Oregon, emergency management officials said.
California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said 16,600 firefighters were battling 25 fires on Tuesday in California, the most populous US state, after being able to largely put out two blazes on Monday.
Nearly three million acres (1.2 million hectares) in California alone have burned so far – more than in any single year in its history – and five of the 20 largest wildfires on record in the state have occurred during that timeframe. In Oregon, roughly one million acres (400,000 hectares) have been blackened, double the state’s annual average over the past decade.
At the height of the crisis in Oregon, some 500,000 residents – at least 10 percent of the state’s population – were under some form of evacuation alert, many forced to flee their homes as swiftly advancing flames closed in on their neighbourhoods.
In the fire-stricken southwestern Oregon town of Phoenix, uprooted families, many with young children, were sleeping in their cars, huddling at a civic centre or in churches, City Council member Sarah Westover said.
“It’s much more difficult to follow the COVID restrictions given the environment,” Westover told Reuters news agency.
Westover said the community is in grief and shock while fearing it might not be over. She and others who have evacuated still have their cars packed, ready to escape at a moment’s notice, she said. Her house in Phoenix was spared, but others nearby burned down.
“It’s like it cherry-picked – it burned down a house, then skipped two, then burned down another. I guess that’s the way they kind of work with the embers flying around,” Westover said.
Marcus Welch, a food service director and youth football coach in Phoenix, told Reuters he has been helping a group of local high school students run a community donation centre to assist a mostly Latino local population whose mobile homes were burned to the ground.
About 600 people have come by to pick up donations, Welch added.
“Every day, I hear a sad story. Every day, I hear a family displaced. People are crying because high school kids are giving them food, water … It’s been a total blessing … Some people, they lost everything, so we encourage them to take everything they can.”
Residents told of having to make quick getaways from fast-moving wildfires.
Rhonda and Chuck Johnston, of Gates, Oregon, described to Reuters celebrating their 32nd wedding anniversary outside their RV playing card games and eating barbecued chicken in the car park of the Oregon State Fairgrounds after a hasty evacuation.
“This is something you never think you’re going to go through,” Rhonda Johnston said. “We grabbed a couple days’ worth of clothes, pills, and two cars full of pictures and two dogs and a cat and our daughter.”
The fires have put harmful levels of smoke and soot into the region’s air, painting skies in tones of orange and sepia even as residents deal with another public health emergency during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Air Quality Index is considered hazardous between 301 and 500. Values above 500 – which multiple Oregon cities have reported during the past week – are beyond the index’s scale.
The air quality agency extended an alert to Thursday, and the air was so thick that Alaska Airlines stopped flights to Portland and Spokane, Washington, until Tuesday afternoon.
Smoke from dozens of wildfires is pooling in California’s Central Valley, an agricultural region that has some of the state’s worst air quality even when there are no flames. Some parts of central California are not likely to see relief until October, said Dan Borsum, the incident meteorologist for a fire in Northern California.
“It’s going to take a substantially strong weather pattern to move all the smoke,” Borsum said at a briefing Sunday.
On Monday, Trump, who is seeking re-election on November 3, met with firefighters and officials in California. His Democratic challenger Joe Biden branded the Republican president a “climate arsonist” for refusing to acknowledge climate change’s role in the wildfires, while Trump said, “I don’t think science knows.”