0712 GMT October 31, 2020
Gov. Kate Brown said Friday that dozens of people were still missing and tens of thousands had been forced to flee their homes. The state’s emergency management director, Andrew Phelps, said officials are “preparing for a mass fatality event” and thousands of structures have been destroyed, AP reported.
Oregon officials haven’t released an exact death count but at least eight fatalities have been reported. Marion County Sheriff Joe Kast said Friday evening that searchers had found two victims of the Beachie Creek fire near Salem. A one-year-old boy was killed in wildfires in Washington.
Hundreds of firefighters were battling two large blazes that threatened to merge near the most populated part of Oregon, including the suburbs of Portland.
Brown said more than 40,000 Oregonians have been evacuated and about 500,000 are in different levels of evacuation zones, either having been told to leave or to prepare to do so. She dialed back a statement late Thursday by the state Office of Emergency Management that said a half-million people had been ordered to evacuate statewide.
Scores of people were missing in Jackson County in the southern area of the state and in Marion County east of Salem, the state capital, Brown told a news conference. Authorities also announced that a man had been arrested on two counts of arson in connection with a fire in southern Oregon.
Improved weather helped efforts on the ground after days of high winds, heat and low humidity. “The wind laid down quite a bit for us yesterday,” said Stefan Myers of the state’s fire information team.
Almost 500 personnel were working on the fires near Portland, which were just a few miles (kilometers) apart, with rugged terrain between them that limits boots-on-the-ground efforts to control the flames, Myers said. If the fires merge, they could generate enough heat to send embers thousands of feet into the air, potentially igniting other areas.
Authorities say more than 1,500 square miles (3,880 square kilometers) have burned in Oregon during recent days, nearly double the amount in a typical year and an area larger than Rhode Island.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee noted that the amount of land burned in just the past five days amounted to the state’s second-worst fire season, after 2015. He called the blazes “climate fires” rather than wildfires.
“This is not an act of God,” Inslee said. “This has happened because we have changed the climate.”