In the Portland metropolitan area, the fast-moving Riverside Fire was close to merging with the Beachie Creek Fire, compounding the crisis for the region of more than 2.4 million people. Combined, the blazes have burned through more than 310,000 acres and were zero-percent contained, according to the Oregon Office of Emergency Management (OEM).
Most of Clackamas County, which straddles the area between the two fires, was under a Level 3 evacuation order instructing residents to leave immediately and warning that emergency services may not be available to help if they stay behind. Conditions were so dangerous that some county firefighters were told to temporarily stand down, in what fire officials said was a “tactical pause” allowing them to reposition themselves and reassess the situation.
Oregon officials reported some progress against the fires Friday as the tinderbox conditions began to give way to cooler and more moist weather. Fog, shifting winds and shade from the smoke helped firefighters create containment lines around parts of the Riverside Fire that were menacing the small town of Estacada, the U.S. Forest Service said in a statement. The favorable weather was expected to continue over the coming days.
“Our firefighting teams tell me they can feel it,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) said at a news conference.
Still, officials were preparing for “a mass fatality incident based on what we know and the number of structures that have been lost,” Andrew Phelps, the OEM director, said Friday.
“We have not seen the likes of this fire in this state integrated with our communities ever before,” said Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry, in a news conference. He added that some of the larger fires could remain active until late fall or until heavy rains helped extinguish them.
The Forest Service cautioned that firefighting resources “continue to be stretched thin” as crews respond to active fires, which numbered at least three dozen in Oregon on Saturday. “Fire managers continue to focus on protecting firefighter and public life-safety, conducting reconnaissance, and point protection for structures where they can do so safely and effectively,” the service said.
Authorities have not disclosed an official death toll, but emergency officials reported least six fatalities as of Saturday morning. They included two deaths in the Beachie Creek Fire, which has ripped through more than 186,000 acres in Marion County, as well as two in the Almeda Drive Fire farther south, and one each in the White River and Holiday Farm fires.
Dozens of people remained missing, officials said.
Evacuees from all over the state took refuge in schools, convention centers and fairgrounds that were converted into temporary shelters. Others packed into vans and RVs, and fled to parking lots in places where no other safe spaces were available. The Red Cross said it was providing assistance at 10 locations around the western part of the state.
Authorities had only just begun investigating the causes of the fires. Early reports from fire managers linked some of the state’s blazes to power lines, though it wasn’t clear what utility companies may be responsible, according to the Oregon Public Utility Commission.
“At this point the PUC has no information attributing any specific wildfire to any specific Oregon utility,” PUC Chair Megan Decker said in a statement. “As with every major fire, full investigations will deliver the facts that we need to determine root causes, including information about whether utility lines were a primary ignition source.”
In California, more than 16,000 firefighters were working to gain control of 28 major fires, state fire officials said Saturday.
Like in Oregon, weather has improved in some parts of California over the past week, helping firefighters contain all but one of 13 small fires that ignited in the state Friday, officials said. Other fires that erupted in August were nearing full containment, including the massive LNU Lightning Complex, which has burned for nearly a month outside the Bay Area.
But warm, dry air still lingered over much of the Golden State, and critical fire weather could make a comeback this weekend, officials said, with gusty winds and low humidity in Modoc National Forest and the Tulelake Basin near the state’s northern border.
Record-breaking blazes have battered the state over the past month, killing at least 17 people and torching vast expanses of terrain. The North Complex Fire, which was just 21 percent contained Saturday, has burned through a quarter million acres and killed at least nine people, making it the state’s deadliest this year.
Since the beginning of the year, wildfires have destroyed more than 3.2 million acres of California land, an area larger than Connecticut, according to state fire officials.
In Washington state, nearly 627,000 acres have burned since Monday, creating the state’s “second-worst fire season” ever in less than a week’s time, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said Friday.