Search and rescue teams, with dogs in tow, were deployed across the blackened ruins of southern Oregon towns on Sunday as smoldering wildfires continue to ravage the U.S. west and officials warn of mass casualties.
A blitz of wildfires across Oregon, California and Washington has destroyed thousands of homes and a half dozen small towns this summer, scorching more than 4 million acres and killing more than two dozen people since early August.
Tracy Koa, a high school teacher, returned to Talent, Oregon, on Saturday after evacuating with her partner Dave Tanksley and 13-year-old daughter to find her house and neighborhood reduced to heaps of ash and rubble.
“We knew that it was gone,” Koa said in a telephone interview on Sunday. “But then you pull up, and the devastation of just every home, you think of every family and every situation and every burnt-down car, and there are just no words for it.”
Crews in Jackson County, Oregon, were hoping to venture into rural areas where the Alameda Fire has abated slightly with slowing winds, sending up thick plumes of smoke as the embers burned. From Medford through the neighboring communities of Phoenix and Talent, an apocalyptic scene of charred residential subdivisions and trailer parks stretched for miles along Highway 99.
Community donation centers popped up around Jackson County over the weekend, including one in the parking lot of Home Depot in Phoenix, where farmers brought a pick-up truck bed full of watermelons and people brought water and other supplies.
After four days of brutally hot, windy weather, the weekend brought calmer winds blowing inland from the Pacific Ocean, and cooler, moister conditions that helped crews make headway against blazes that had burned unchecked earlier in the week.
Still, emergency officials worried that the shifting weather might not be enough to quell the fires.
“We’re concerned that the incoming front is not going to provide a lot of rain here in the Medford region and it’s going to bring increased winds,” Bureau of Land Management spokesman Kyle Sullivan told Reuters in a telephone interview on Sunday.
At least ten people have been killed in Oregon, according to the office of emergency management. Brown has said that dozens of people remained missing across three counties.
There were 34 active fires burning in Oregon as of Sunday morning, according to the state’s office of emergency management website.
A CLIMATE CHANGE ‘WAKE-UP CALL’
Thick smoke and ash from the fires has darkened the sky over the Pacific Northwest since Labor Day, creating some of the world’s worst air-quality levels and driving residents indoors. Satellite images showed the smoke was wafting inland in the eastern direction, the Bureau of Land Management said on Twitter on Sunday.
Drought conditions, extreme temperatures and high winds in Oregon created the “perfect firestorm” for the blazes to grow, Governor Kate Brown told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday.
“This is a wake up call for all of us that we’ve got to do everything in our power to tackle climate change,” Brown said.
Trump, a Republican, was scheduled to travel to California and meet with federal and state officials on Monday. He has said that western governors bear some of the blame for intense fire seasons in recent years, as opposed to warming temperatures, and has accused them of poor forest management.
In California, nearly 17,000 firefighters were battling 29 major wildfires on Sunday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Improving weather conditions had helped them gain a measure of containment over most of the blazes.
More than 4,000 homes and other structures have been incinerated in California alone over the past three weeks. About three million acres of land have been burned in the state, according to the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.