Dozens of people missing in Oregon wildfires


A person walks past gutted homes in the Medford Estates neighborhood in the aftermath of the Almeda fireImage copyright

Dozens of people are missing in Oregon as wildfires continue to rage across the western US, state Governor Kate Brown has said.

Tens of thousands of people in Oregon alone have been displaced by the deadly infernos.

Wildfires have killed at least four in Oregon and 11 elsewhere. More than 100 blazes, fanned by hot, dry winds, are currently scorching 12 states.

Federal emergency aid has been approved for Oregon to help battle the fires.

“Many Oregonians are suffering right now, whether displaced themselves or worried about their families and communities while watching our beautiful state burn,” Gov Brown told reporters on Friday.

“As of now, there are early reports from our state police that there are dozens of missing persons related to the fires specifically in Jackson, Lane and Marion counties.”

She did not offer further details on the missing persons.

The governor also clarified that fewer than 100,000 Oregonians had been told to leave their homes.

State officials said a day earlier that half a million people were under evacuation orders.

But Ms Brown said on Friday the higher figure included those who remained at home but had been advised to be ready to evacuate.

Ms Brown also implored residents who have evacuated to keep out of fire zones despite rumours of thieves and damage.

“I know that rumours of looting are extremely alarming and that it’s unsettling not to know whether your home is still standing.

“Let me assure you that we have the Oregon National Guard and Oregon State Police monitoring the situation and preventing looting.”

She added that people who tried to return to their homes were putting their own lives, as well as those of firefighters and first responders, at risk.

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Media captionDrone footage shows homes completely wiped out by wildfires

The governor noted that federal aid had been approved, which will help provide additional support in fighting the fires and caring for those displaced.

Oregon’s forestry department fire protection chief Doug Grafe said on Friday firefighters are still battling 16 large blazes, but cooling temperatures and additional moisture in the air are helping efforts.

Along with Oregon, California and Washington state are the worst affected states.

Entire towns have been destroyed in this region and around 4.4m acres – an area slightly smaller than Wales – have been burned, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

At least one blaze in Oregon is being treated as suspected arson.

While natural factors such as strong winds have helped the spread of these massive fires, the underlying heating of the climate from human activities is making these conflagrations bigger and more explosive.

Nine of the world’s 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2005, and the UN warned this week that the five years from 2016 until this year will very likely be the hottest such period yet recorded. Both Oregon and California have warmed by more than 1C since 1900.

The sustained warmth has seen six of the 20 largest fires on record in California all occur this year. In Oregon, the spate of fires has burned nearly twice the average annual losses in just the past week.

In California, a prolonged drought over the past decade has killed millions of trees, turning them into potent fuel for the fires. Mountain regions that are normally cooler and wetter have dried out more rapidly in the summer, adding to the potential fuel load.

Climate scientists had forecast that western wildfires would grow in size, scale and impact – but their predictions are coming to fruition faster than expected.

Among the victims in Oregon are a young boy and his grandmother. The pair were killed in a wildfire near Lyons, 70 miles (110km) south of Portland.

Twelve-year-old Wyatt Tofte, his dog, and his grandmother Peggy Mosso died in the family car trying to escape the blaze. His mother was found severely burnt.

Lonnie Bertalotto, Ms Mosso’s son and Wyatt’s uncle, confirmed the deaths in a Facebook post. “Don’t take anything in life for granted and make the best of everyday,” he wrote.

Mr Bertalotto told the Oregonian newspaper what exactly happened remains unclear, but the family believes Wyatt tried to get his grandmother out of the car, but she had a broken knee and was unable to move.

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Image caption

An infrared image shows destroyed homes in Phoenix, Oregon: burned vegetation and property appear grey, surviving vegetation is in red

The Almeda fire has been one of the most destructive in the state. Beginning near the California border, the blaze has been linked to at least two deaths and has burned through hundreds of homes in the towns of Phoenix and Talent.

Officials are treating it as suspicious.

A spokesman for the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office told Reuters news agency all fires are investigated for the possibility of arson.

In Oregon’s largest city, Portland, encroaching fires have prompted mass evacuations in the suburbs.

What is the situation elsewhere?

In neighbouring Washington, the state’s largest wildfire in Okanogan county caused the death of a one-year-old boy as his family tried to escape the blaze. His parents remain in critical condition.

Most homes in the town of Malden, in the eastern part of the state, have also been destroyed.

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Media captionFive ways that show the scale of California’s 2020 wildfires

In California, the death toll continues to rise. Authorities in Butte County, north of the capital Sacramento, said 10 bodies have been found in the last two days. A 16-year-old boy is among those reported killed in the fire.

Another 16 people are still reported as missing.

The North Complex Fire, which has been burning since 18 August, is among the deadliest in history, the California Department of Forestry and Fire protection reports.

The nation’s most populous state has seen at least 20 deaths from fires since 15 Aug, when the first series of blazes began, according to Cal Fire, the agency handling the wildfires.

Over 3m acres have burned in the last month, the most in a single year according to the Los Angeles Times.

Some 64,000 people were under evacuation orders in the Golden State as 14,000 firefighters continue to combat 29 major fires.

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