Firefighters are stretched as fires tear through California, Oregon and Washington State.
Wildfires were spreading with explosive force up and down the West Coast on Thursday, having devoured whole neighborhoods, forced mass evacuations and left the authorities facing harrowing decisions on where to send fire and rescue teams as disasters hemmed them in.
While firefighters struggled to contain the blazes, rescue workers made early forays into towns that had been blackened and hollowed out by fires. By Thursday, they had discovered at least seven bodies. Officials said hundreds of homes had been consumed by flames and aerial images of towns like Talent and Medford, Ore., showed streets lined with homes that were charred if not outright destroyed.
The authorities, facing fires that have burned a record 2.5 million acres in California and hundreds of thousands more in Oregon and Washington State, pleaded for federal help and the public’s cooperation in stark terms. Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon on Wednesday requested a federal emergency declaration, asked residents not to call 911 about smoke — the system was inundated with calls — and warned of what emergency crews expected to find in the debris.
“We expect to see a great deal of loss, both in structures and in human lives,” Ms. Brown said. “This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state’s history.”
To the north, more than 480,000 acres have burned in Washington State this week, with some communities essentially destroyed, officials said.
“Every firefighting entity in Washington State would like to have more resources right now,” Gov. Jay Inslee said at a news conference late Wednesday. He linked the devastating fire season to climate change, noting the West Coast’s intense heat waves, and invited skeptics to visit a string of badly burned towns: Bonney Lake, Graham, Malden, Okanogan.
In an ominous sign for firefighters, no rain was expected in Northern California or in Oregon or eastern Washington.
“The low humidity, the high temperatures, the winds have all combined to stymie some of the most aggressive firefighting activities,” Mr. Inslee said.
“California, Oregon, Washington, we are all in the same soup of cataclysmic fire,” he added.
In California, the fast-moving Bear Fire grew unabated as one of hundreds of wildfires across the state. The Bear Fire, burning near Chico, destroyed dozens of homes in Butte County, where three people were found dead, and the community of Berry Creek was hit especially hard.
It also cast ash over the Bay Area, turning the sky into a thick, orange mix of fog and smoke. The National Weather Service said smoky and hazy conditions would likely continue in the Bay Area for the remainder of the week.
The Creek Fire near Fresno, in Central California, remained completely uncontained, growing to nearly 167,000 acres by Thursday morning. Thousands of people evacuated their homes, emergency teams searched for injured survivors and the U.S. Forest Service closed all 18 national forests in California, fearing that people could become trapped in the parks.
In addition to the three people found dead in Butte County, a 1-year-old boy was killed in the Cold Springs Fire in northern Washington, one person was killed near Ashland, Ore., two victims were discovered in a vehicle east of Salem, Ore., according to the county sheriff’s offices.
‘I can’t believe this devastation’: A blaze sweeps through a small Washington town.
The wildfires that ripped through eastern and central Washington this week devastated communities, killing a 1-year-old and leaving the boy’s parents with third-degree burns.
Among the hardest-hit places was the old railroad town of Malden, where deputies rushed through the streets and screamed for residents to flee as the flames roared toward town. By Tuesday afternoon, most of the town’s homes were destroyed, along with City Hall, the post office, the library and the fire station.
“I’ve seen this kind of loss before, dozens of times,” said Royle Hehr, a resident who used to run a flood and fire restoration business in Arizona. “I’ve worked with people who lost everything. I can’t believe this devastation.”
On Wednesday, volunteers handed out doughnuts and bottled water. Portable toilets and hand-washing stations were set up as wispy tails of smoke from smoldering debris — homes, outbuildings, trees, vegetation and power poles — corkscrewed into the late-summer skies.
Four miles down the two-lane county road, three or four large grain bins, filled with recently harvested wheat, continued to burn. One had split open, its commodity ablaze on the ground like sawdust logs.
In northern Washington, a 1-year-old boy was killed in the Cold Springs Fire after the child and his parents attempted to flee their property, the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office said. The family was found along the bank of the Columbia River on Wednesday morning, and the parents were flown to a hospital in Seattle with third-degree burns.
“It’s an extreme tragedy for any loss of life,” Sheriff Tony Hawley said.
The police are working to dispel social media rumors about activists setting the fires.
Officials dealing with mass fires on the West Coast have been forced to counter social media rumors that the blazes were set by activists.
In Medford, Ore., which saw a blaze that devastated the nearby communities of Phoenix and Talent, the Police Department reported hearing throughout Wednesday rumors that officers had arrested either leftist antifa or right-wing Proud Boys activists for arson. The department made its own Facebook post to say that neither story was true, nor was a fake graphic associated with the rumors, nor were reports of “gatherings of Antifa.”
Still, with no evidence, other social media posts repeatedly pointed suspicion toward antifa — a loosely coordinated group of activists involved in protests in places like Portland, Ore.
But in Oregon, which has suffered catastrophic fires in the last few days, officials haven’t even seen any evidence of such a campaign at the state or local level, said Joy Krawczyk, a spokeswoman with the Oregon Department of Forestry. She said many fires remain under investigation.
“We’re not seeing any indications of a mass politically-influenced arson campaign,” Ms. Krawczyk said.
Officials have previously said that one of the most devastating fires, the Santiam Canyon blaze east of Salem, was started by falling trees that knocked down power lines.
Forecasters had warned in recent days that high winds and parched lands would make for dangerous fire conditions. But officials in Washington State reported one case they believe was arson, arresting a man they say was in a highway median setting a fire. That fire was soon extinguished.
Reporting was contributed by Mike Baker, Bill Morlin and Alan Yuhas.