US towns destroyed as firefighters battle wildfires under orange skies

Javier Tovar, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Sep 10 2020 11:54 AM

Heavy smoke form fires burning in the region brought a cloud of darkness in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday morning, Sept. 9, 2020, as workers make deliveries. Wildfires were ripping through several Western states on Wednesday, destroying homes and forcing thousands of people to evacuate as an extraordinary number of blazes raged in California, Washington and Oregon. Jim Wilson/The New York Times 

SHAVER LAKE, United States -- Hundreds of homes including entire communities were razed by wildfires in the western United States Wednesday, as officials warned of potential mass deaths under apocalyptic orange skies.

At least 6 people have been killed in the fires, with officials warning that more deaths would likely be reported in the next days as many areas are impossible to reach.

In Oregon, at least 5 towns were "substantially destroyed" as widespread evacuations took place across the northwestern state, governor Kate Brown said.

"This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state's history," she told a press conference.

Neighboring California and Washington states have been scrambling to contain rapidly spreading wildfires since the weekend due to unprecedented heatwaves followed by intense, dry winds.

Fatalities on Wednesday included a 1-year-old baby boy who perished while his parents suffered severe burns as they attempted to flee an inferno 130 miles east of Seattle, in Washington state.

Three unidentified people were killed in northern California, while two more deaths were confirmed in the Santiam Canyon region, 60 miles south of Portland, Oregon.

"They are not going to be the only folks that we find deceased up there (in Santiam)," said Marion County sheriff Joe Kast. 

Jody Evans, a resident of Detroit -- one of the 5 towns devastated in Oregon -- fled her home as the fire approached.

"Coming through fire on both sides, trees down, wind blowing, ash flying," Evans told Newschannel 21. "It was like driving through hell."

Sandra Spelliscy, city manager of Talent, Oregon, told AFP that only "smoldering ruins" remained of large parts of her community.

"There are numerous neighborhoods where there are no structures left standing... dozens of homes (gone) and literally nothing except the skeletons of a chimney or an appliance, a water heater," she said.

'SCARY' 

In an image provided by the agency, the view from a California National Guard helicopter rescuing stranded campers as a wildfire burned in the Sierra National Forest, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. More than 2.2 million acres of parched lands have burned this year, a record for the state, and California is only just entering what is traditionally the most dangerous months of fire weather. (California National Guard/The New York Times

In California, people in the San Francisco Bay Area awoke to a deep orange sky caused by wildfire smoke that at times blocked out sunlight entirely.

Photos of the eerie scene, particularly of a San Francisco skyline fit for a dystopian science fiction film, spread quickly on social media.

"We know the smoke, darkness, and orange glow is scary. Stay calm and try to stay indoors," tweeted the fire department.

Cars crossing the famous Golden Gate Bridge were forced to switch their lights on throughout the day.

Much of the smoke blew down from the north, where the Bear Fire exploded at an unprecedented speed overnight, combining with older blazes to scorch over 250,000 acres and threaten the city of Oroville.

"Our office... located the remains of three people," said Butte County sheriff Kory Honea. "I certainly hope that this isn't the trend. But, folks, time and time again we've seen how dangerous wildfires can be."

Evacuation warnings were expanded to parts of the town of Paradise, site of California's deadliest modern fire which killed 86 people less than two years ago.

The nearby August Complex Fire also spread rapidly to become the state's second-largest blaze in history, at 420,000 acres.

At the Creek Fire in central California, exhausted firefighters raced between blazes as thick columns of smoke rose up from the Sierra forest -- now closed, along with all 18 of the state's national forests.

In one home near Shaver Lake, only the scorched remains of a washing machine, outdoor dining table and chairs were left standing beside the ash-coated chassis of a pickup truck, according to an AFP reporter.

"It's scary... we just left everything," said 68-year-old Sandy Clark, who fled her home for a hotel rather than a crowded shelter due to coronavirus fears.

'DEVASTATION' 

Tens of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate homes across the region.

In Washington, where the town of Malden was decimated, governor Jay Inslee described the wildfires as "unprecedented and heartbreaking."

Inslee, who campaigned for the Democratic nomination for president on a platform of battling climate change, blamed the effects of a changing climate for the exceptional ferocity of this year's blazes.

"We're living in a new world -- this is not the old Washington," he said.

"The devastation is all over our state."

California Governor Gavin Newsom added: "I quite literally have no patience for climate change deniers... It's completely inconsistent, that point of view, with the reality on the ground."

California has seen more than 2.5 million acres burn this year -- an annual record, with nearly four months of fire season still to come.

More than 14,000 firefighters are fighting 28 major wildfires across the country's most populous state.

© Agence France-Presse