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An Update On Wildfires In The West


Wildfires throughout Oregon and California are destroying forests and towns and forcing people to flee their homes. Outside Portland, thousands are under evacuation orders. Less than 50 miles south, the towns of Gates and Detroit have been decimated by the Santiam Fire. Jerry Vavra described the scene as he evacuated.


JERRY VAVRA: We had no time, just - we didn't get any of our valuables or anything. We lost everything. It looked like we were actually in hell, really.

PFEIFFER: Forty miles south as the crow flies, the town of Blue River was leveled by the Holiday Farm Fire. We spoke to Chris LaVoie, who lived in Blue River, yesterday on this program.


CHRIS LAVOIE: It's not like there's charred standing buildings for the most part. The buildings are just completely gone. It's like this big bomb hit and everything just got completely destroyed.

PFEIFFER: Near the California border, hundreds of homes were consumed by a fire that tore through the towns of Phoenix and Talent. And farther south, in Butte County, Calif., wildfires are converging once again on the town of Paradise, where at least 85 people died in a fire two years ago. These are only some of the places affected as nearly 4 million acres burn in California and Oregon. At least seven people have died throughout the region.

To help us understand the scale of the damage, we're joined by member station reporters Erin Ross with Oregon Public Broadcasting and Dan Brekke at KQED in San Francisco. And, Erin, Oregon Governor Kate Brown said yesterday that this could be the state's worst fire season ever once crews have a chance to take stock of the damage and destruction. What have they discovered?

ERIN ROSS, BYLINE: Ashes and sometimes bodies. And authorities expect to find more. At least three towns - Blue River in the mountains and Talent and Phoenix in southern Oregon - have been entirely demolished. And that's home to 10,000 people. These fires have entered dozens of towns, but it's only been safe for search and rescue officials to check about three. So we know that the loss of property and life is going to go up dramatically. Santiam Canyon, which is up in the mountains east of Salem, is still under evacuation orders. But Gates resident Bob Stifle (ph) was able to visit the town with OPB reporter Cassandra Profita.


BOB STIFLE: Used to have a little post office here. There was like some little shops in there. All those power lines is down. All of this - these were all houses. These were all people's homes.

PFEIFFER: Could you tell us a little about the size and scope of these fires?

ROSS: Yes. The fire started late Monday, when we had a once-in-a-century windstorm. And within 24 hours, almost 200,000 acres had burned. We've never had this many fires burning at once. And while workers were trying to put those out, more were appearing across the state. Portland Fire and Rescue said that they've had over 500 calls related to fires in three days. And that's about five times higher than normal. And that's just in one city.

PFEIFFER: And the speed at which these fires are growing sounds really extreme.

ROSS: Yes, it is. Wind pushed them down the mountain canyons, and these fires traveled - some of them - 40 miles in a single night. In one mountain town, Detroit, two fires converged. And they forced a group of evacuees and firefighters to go hide on the docks of the lake. And the highways looked like it was closed. They thought they couldn't escape. But they were actually able to get out over a forest service road while a snowplow cleared flaming debris from the path. And these fires are also so close to urban areas.

You know, our fires, they usually start from lightning strikes on mountaintops. But a lot of these began from downed power lines. Spot fires that started right in the middle of towns, too. So two major metropolitan areas - Medford and Springfield - are under threat. Parts of both cities are either under evacuation or pre-evacuation orders. And then, of course, just southeast of Portland, in the bedroom communities in Clackamas County, there's thousands of homes under threat. And about half the county is under a Level 3 evacuation order.

PFEIFFER: Any sense of how long this will last? Is there any end in sight?

ROSS: Conditions are better now than they have been most of the week, but that's not really saying a lot. Portions of the area are still under red flag warnings. And the high winds have died down some. That's good. But it's still breezy and still very, very hot and dry. It is finally calm enough for firefighters to start more extensive search and rescue operations safely. But most of these fires are still entirely uncontained. And it looks like on Monday, we might finally get cooler temperatures and maybe a little bit of rain. But that's a long way off.

PFEIFFER: And, Dan, bringing you in. What's the situation in California?

DAN BREKKE, BYLINE: Well, Cal Fire - the state firefighting agency here - announced today that so far this year, 3 million acres have burned across the state. And that's more than a million acres higher than the previous one-year record. What might be more shocking is that more than 90% of that area has burned in just the last three weeks. Five of the top 10 biggest fires in the state's records, which go back about a century, have occurred during that period. And that's since dry lightning storms swept the state in mid-August. Thousands of homes have burned. And at least 12 people have been killed here.

PFEIFFER: Seems the scale of destruction is so extensive.

BREKKE: Well, you know, it is. It's hard to comprehend. But we're talking about 5,000 square miles that have burned this year. So if you imagine a line running from near where you are in Boston down to Washington and on to Richmond, Va., and everything in a 10-mile strip burning, that's what we're talking about. Or in California, from San Francisco to San Diego - that's about the right ballpark to imagine the scale of destruction.

PFEIFFER: Massive. And I understand these fires haven't only been big. They have other things in common.

BREKKE: Well, just like we heard from Erin, the fires have been incredibly fast moving. There was a fire over the weekend in the Sierra Nevada, south of Yosemite, that moved so fast that helicopter rescues were needed to get more than 200 people out. On Tuesday night, crews near Paradise, which you mentioned at the top, were forced to rescue about a hundred people as high winds swept the north part of the state and blew a fire that hadn't been a very big priority completely out of control. And that fire by itself burned about 200,000 acres in a little more than 24 hours. At a briefing last night, John Messina, who is a Cal Fire chief working on that fire, talked about the need to get people out of harm's way as fires blow through the forest.


JOHN MESSINA: Every single fire crew, bulldozer and fire engine becomes a premium resource. And we cannot be using premium resources to assist in rescues for people who refuse to evacuate.

PFEIFFER: The fire he's talking about, the North Complex Fire, has been burning in Butte County, which has seen catastrophic fires before. What has the impact been there?

BREKKE: Well, that's right. Back in November 2018, a wildfire called the Camp Fire burned down the town of Paradise and a couple of nearby communities. Eighty-five people died, and about 14,000 homes were destroyed. And when red glows appeared across the hills yesterday, the mayor of Paradise, Greg Bolan, told me people were quite anxious.

GREG BOLIN: You can hear in their voice, their questions. What's going on? Do I need to leave? Or what do I need to do? You know, it's horrible over here, looks terrible. I see a red glow to the trees. Is there a fire in Paradise?

BREKKE: So the good news is that the winds have died down up there today. And the town looks like it's safe for the time being. But there's a reason for the anxiety people have up there. Cal Fire says its preliminary estimate is that about 2,000 structures in Butte County have been destroyed or damaged by this fire. And the sheriff announced last night that three people have died in the fire so far, and a dozen people had been reported as unaccounted for.

PFEIFFER: That's KQED reporter Dan Brekke in Berkeley and Erin Ross with Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland. Thanks to both of you.

ROSS: Thank you.

BREKKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Brekke (KQED)
Erin Ross (OPR)