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Wildfires Live Updates: In Oregon, Firefighters Face a Threat of Resurging Winds

2020-09-13 14:42:51

After some calm, winds threaten a resurgence in parts of Oregon.

Firefighters battling the devastating flames in Oregon are expected to encounter resurging wind gusts in parts of the state on Sunday that threaten to fan the flames even as rescue workers continue searching for dozens of missing people.

The National Weather Service issued a “red flag warning” for Sunday because of the prospect of windy and dry weather in southern Oregon and nearby counties in California. Some areas could see gusts as high as 40 miles an hour, and forecasters said the winds would “likely contribute to a significant spread of new and existing fires.”

“We could be looking at a challenging Sunday,” Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said.

The raging fires in Oregon have already consumed more than one million acres and forced tens of thousands of people out of their homes. Combined with a record-setting 3.1 million acres burned in California and more than 600,000 acres burned in Washington State, the West Coast has been blanketed for days by thick smoke that has left cities bathed in an apocalyptic haze and the worst air quality on the planet.

Calmer winds blowing inland from the Pacific Ocean, and cooler, moister conditions on Saturday had help crews make some progress on fires, which Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon called a “once-in-a-generation event.”

Sunday’s warnings include Jackson County, where the Almeda swept through the communities of Talent and Phoenix, razing hundreds of homes and leaving at least five people dead, bringing the death toll across the West Coast to at least 20. The authorities in Jackson County said their list of missing people remained at about 50, although some were being discovered safe.

The Almeda fire was still only about 50 percent contained as of Saturday night. And just to the north, the larger South Obenchain fire was only 20 percent contained.

Forecasters warned that hazardous air conditions could linger through Monday, encouraging people to limit their time outdoors. Officials hope that weather changes on Monday could bring precipitation to help with both the smoke and the flames.

On Saturday, the Oregon State Police announced that the state fire marshal, James Walker, had resigned after being placed on administrative leave earlier in the day.

The statement did not say why Mr. Walker had resigned. He was replaced by his chief deputy, Mariana Ruiz-Temple.

President Trump is scheduled to visit McClellan Park, Calif., on Monday to be briefed on the wildfires.

Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles said on Sunday on the CNN program “State of the Union” that he was glad the president would see firsthand what is happening in California. But Mr. Garcetti used his appearance to criticize Mr. Trump’s efforts to loosen climate control regulations, saying that the administration has had its “head in the sand” on environmental issues.

“This is climate change,” Mr. Garcetti said, noting that the president has been attributing the West Coast’s destructive wildfires to poor forest management.

“This is not just about forest management or raking,” Mr. Garcetti said, “anybody who lives here in California is insulted by that quite frankly and he keeps perpetuating this lie.”

At least 20 people have died in recent blazes along the West Coast.

They lived more than 500 miles from each other — one in the wooded foothills of the Sierra Nevada, northeast of California’s capital, Sacramento, the other in a thickly forested canyon east of Oregon’s capital, Salem.

Josiah Williams, 16.

Wyatt Tofte, 13.

They were young lives cut short, victims of the great western wildfires of 2020.

The arrival of fire season in the American West always brings fear of fatalities, especially among the elderly and infirm, unable to escape the flames.

But the deaths of Josiah and Wyatt, two athletic teenagers, speak to the speed and the ferocity of the fires that this year have burned a record number of acres, four million in California and Oregon combined.

With thick smoke blanketing large parts of Washington, Oregon and California and tens of thousands of people evacuated, the fires have been the worst in decades, exacerbated by climate change. By Saturday, fires in California had burned 26 times more territory than they had at the same time last year.

Across the West this weekend, law enforcement authorities were scouring incinerated communities for missing persons. At least 20 people have died in the fires, with dozens more missing and peak fire season only beginning in many parts of the West.

Although fires in previous years have proved more deadly — a firestorm in 2018 that decimated the town of Paradise in California killed more than 80 people in a single night — the numbers obscure the trauma that each death brings to the small communities where wildfires have caused such terror.

Ash fell from an apocalyptic orange sky as Jennifer Willin drove home last week from the only school in tiny Berry Creek, Calif., where she had picked up a pair of Wi-Fi hot spots for her daughters’ remote classes. Hours later, her cellphone erupted with an emergency alert: Evacuate immediately.

By the next morning, what one official described as a “massive wall of fire” had swept through the entire Northern California town of about 1,200 people, killing nine residents and destroying the school and almost every home and business.

Ms. Willin and her family escaped to a cramped hotel room 60 miles away. In her panic, she had forgotten to grab masks, but she had the hot spots, along with her daughters’ laptops and school books. On Monday, the two girls plan to meet with their teachers on Zoom, seeking some comfort amid the chaos.

Amid twin disasters, the remote learning preparations that schools made for the coronavirus crisis are providing a strange modicum of stability for teachers and students, letting many stay connected and take comfort in an unexpected form of virtual community.

“They’re still able to be in school,” Ms. Willin said, “even though the school burned to the ground.”

Smoke from wildfires, which can include toxic substances from burned buildings, has been linked to serious health problems.

Studies have shown that when waves of smoke hit the rate of hospital visits rises and many of the additional patients experience respiratory problems, heart attacks and strokes.

The health effects of wildfire smoke don’t go away when skies clear. A recent study on Montana residents suggested a long tail for wildfire smoke exposure.

Erin Landguth, an associate professor in the school of public and community health science at the University of Montana and the lead author on the study, said research had shown that “after bad fire seasons, one would expect to see three to five times worse flu seasons” months later.

If you can’t leave an area that has high levels of smoke, the C.D.C. recommends limiting exposure by staying indoors with windows and doors closed and running air-conditioners in recirculation mode so that outside air isn’t drawn into your home.

Portable air purifiers are also recommended, though, like air-conditioners, they require electricity. If utilities cut off power, as has happened in California, those options are limited.

If you do have power, avoid frying food, which can increase indoor smoke.

Experts say it is especially important to avoid cigarettes. They also recommend avoiding strenuous outdoor activities when the air is bad. When outside, well-fitted N95 masks are also recommended, though they are in short supply because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Some other masks, particularly tightly woven ones made of different layers of fabric, can provide “pretty good filtration,” if they are fitted closely to the face, said Sarah Henderson, senior scientist in environmental health services at the British Columbia Center for Disease Control.

Reporting was contributed by Mike Baker, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Thomas Fuller, Dan Levin and Kate Taylor.


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