September 11, 2020 - 7:13 am
Updated September 11, 2020 - 8:09 am
PHOENIX, Ore. — Deadly wildfires in heavily populated northwest Oregon were growing, with hundreds of thousands of people told to flee encroaching flames, while residents to the south tearfully assessed their losses.
The number of people evacuated statewide because of fires rose to an estimated 500,000 — more than 10 percent of the state’s 4.2 million people, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management reported late Thursday.
One fire approached Molalla, triggering a mandatory evacuation order for the community of about 9,000 located 30 miles south of Portland. A police car rolled through the streets with a loudspeaker blaring “evacuate now.”
Inmates were being moved from a women’s prison less than a mile from Interstate 5 in Portland’s southern suburbs “out of an abundance of caution,” the Oregon Department of Corrections said.
With two large fires threatening to merge, some firefighters in Clackamas County, which includes Molalla, were told to disengage temporarily because of the danger. Officials tried to reassure residents who abandoned their homes and law enforcement officials said police patrols would be stepped up to prevent looting.
The local fire department said on Twitter: “To be clear, your firefighters are still working hard on the wildfires in Clackamas County. They are taking a ‘tactical pause’ to allow firefighters to reposition, get accountability & evaluate extreme fire conditions.”
“We haven’t abandoned you,” the fire officials said.
Residents of the small Oregon town of Phoenix near the California state line walked through a scene of devastation after one of the state’s many wildfires wiped out much of their community. A mobile home park, houses and businesses were burned, leaving twisted remains on charred ground.
Many of the residents were immigrants, with few resources to draw on.
Artemio Guterrez stood helplessly next to his pickup, surveying the rubble of his mobile home. His children sat quietly in the truck bed and waited for him to salvage what he could. He found a ceramic pot with a smiley face on it, some charred miniature houses from a Christmas-themed village and a cross that formed when two pieces of glass melted together.
Guterrez, a single father of four, had been at work at a vineyard nearby when he saw thick smoke spreading through Rogue River Valley. He raced home just in time to snatch his kids from the trailer park where they live alongside dozens of other Mexican families. They got out only with the clothes they were wearing.
“I’m going to start all over again. It’s not easy but it’s not impossible either. You have to be a little tough in situations like this,” said Guterrez, who had just returned from his mother’s funeral in Mexico.
Entire mobile home parks with many units occupied by Mexican immigrants who worked in nearby vineyards or doing construction were reduced to ash in Phoenix and nearby Talent.
10 dead, 16 missing in Northern California fire
A Northern California wildfire that destroyed a foothill hamlet has become the state’s deadliest blaze of the year with 10 people confirmed dead — and the toll could climb as searchers look for 16 missing people.
The North Complex fire that exploded in wind-driven flames earlier in the week was advancing more slowly Friday after the winds eased and smoke from the blaze shaded the area and lowered the temperature, allowing firefighters to make progress, authorities said.
However, the smoke made for poor visibility and fire helicopters couldn’t fly Thursday.
In most parts of the state, red flag warnings of extreme fire danger because of hot, dry weather or gusty winds were lifted.
Only a day or two earlier, the North Complex fire tore through Sierra Nevada foothills so quickly that fire crews were nearly engulfed, locals fled for their lives to a pond, and the town of Berry Creek, population 525, was gutted.
On Thursday, Butte County sheriff’s Capt. Derek Bell said seven bodies were discovered, bringing the total to 10 in two days. At least four people with critical burns were hospitalized.
Deputies and detectives were searching for human remains as they made their way into devastated areas with a team of anthropologists from Chico State University, Bell said.
Burned-out and overturned cars, downed power lines and the ruins of buildings littered Berry Creek and nearby areas, the Sacramento Bee reported. One hatchback found on a dirt road had three dead dogs in it, while a pickup truck had the remnants of a guitar case and melted CDs in the bed.
More than 2,000 homes and other buildings had burned in the fire, which began several weeks ago as a lightning-sparked collection of blazes northeast of San Francisco. The final toll is expected to be much higher. Damage assessment teams planned to begin a methodical search of the burned areas on Friday.