‘Like a bomb’ - winds fuel destructive Northwest blazes

September 9, 2020 GMT
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A flock of birds flies above Mount Rainier as smoke from burning wildfires creates a hazy view, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, near Sumner, Wash., south of Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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A flock of birds flies above Mount Rainier as smoke from burning wildfires creates a hazy view, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, near Sumner, Wash., south of Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Wildfires fanned by high winds burned hundreds of thousands of acres in the Northwest, mostly destroying a small town in eastern Washington state and causing evacuations, power outages and highway closures in Oregon.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday more than 330,000 acres (133,546 hectares) burned in Washington in a 24-hour period — more than burns in most entire fire seasons.

“It’s an unprecedented and heart-breaking event,″ Inslee said at a news conference, blaming heat, high winds and low humidity for the explosive growth of fires. ”The list of fires is long.″

Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said thousands of people were impacted by the fires, but there appeared to be no deaths or injuries.

“As of this morning, we have 9 large fires,″ Franz tweeted. ”We had 58 new wildfire starts in the last 24 hours.″

Franz said the high winds grounded many firefighting airplanes and helicopters on Monday, making it impossible to knock down fires when they first ignited.

The high winds and dry fuels in the Northwest are similar to conditions in California, where thousands of firefighters are battling dozens of fires around the state.

In Oregon, thousands of people were without power as crews battled large fires in Clackamas County Tuesday. Some people were told to evacuate. Over 40,000 people south of Portland were without power.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown approved an emergency conflagration declaration that freed up state resources for several wildfires that exceed the capabilities of local crews. At a news conference she said initial reports show some blazes may have been caused by downed power lines.

“This is proving to be an unprecedented and significant fire event for our state, and frankly for the entire West Coast,” Brown said.

The Lions Head fire in north-central Oregon and the Santiam Canyon fire east of Salem had burned 200,00 (80,930 hectares) acres so far, Brown said.

Fire officials said their priority is evacuating people and protecting lives. Near a fire burning east of Eugene, Oregon, people were unable to evacuate for a time Tuesday because of roads blocked by fire and debris, according to the Oregon State fire marshal. Fire crews eventually helped 46 people escape that area, the fire marshal said.

As winds shift and slow Thursday, authorities hope to take a more “offensive approach” and assess damage.

Authorities evacuated three prisons in Salem due to wildfire threats, sending about 1,400 inmates to the Oregon State Penitentiary.

During the last two weeks there have been 3,000 firefighters on the ground battling blazes in Oregon. The Oregon National Guard said Tuesday it had sent resources to five counties to help with fires.

A grass fire in Ashland in southern Oregon closed down a section of Interstate 5, the main north-south freeway along the West Coast. Authorities Tuesday evening issued an immediate evacuation notice for all residents in the small city of Phoenix, just northwest of Ashland and near Medford along I-5 because of wildfire.

In Marion County, which includes the state capital of Salem, a blaze prompted evacuation orders Tuesday in the western foothills of the Cascade Range.

Among those evacuated to the Oregon State Fairgrounds were 160 residents of the Marian Estates independent senior living center in Sublimity, Oregon. The fire was so close it blotted out the morning sun as workers hustled out the elderly residents.

“It was pitch black dark out there — all you could see was red,” said Wendy Phelps-Chapman, activity director at the center who on Tuesday took on the task of evacuating residents. She made two trips on a bus with residents to the fairgrounds in Salem, the state capital 15 miles away. Volunteers transported walkers and wheelchairs.

Phelps-Chapman had two wear two masks just to filter out the airborne ash and be able to breathe.

By early afternoon, 600 people had checked in to the fairgrounds evacuation center, Red Cross spokesman Chad Carter said as more vehicles turned into the parking lot that was already jammed with cars, pickup trucks and campers.

Paul Brakeman, mayor of Scotts Mills, Oregon, a town of 370 residents, said he evacuated in the late morning Tuesday.

“Smoke cover was looming over our hill, and people were evacuating in town,” Brakeman said over the phone from his car in nearby Mount Angel. “As I was packing up to leave, someone drove by and he was told (the fire) was 5 miles south of us and headed our way.”

In Washington state, Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers said a wind-driven fire destroyed an estimated 80% of the homes in the town of Malden, which is about 35 miles (55 kilometers) south of Spokane and has about 200 residents. Malden lost its fire station, post office, City Hall, library and most of its homes, according to the sheriff’s office.

“The scale of this disaster really can’t be expressed in words,” Myers said in a statement. “The fire will be extinguished, but a community has been changed for a lifetime.”

The fire was pushed by winds of up to 45 mph (72 kph). Deputies went door to door and used public-address systems to tell residents to evacuate.

“The destruction in Malden, Pine City, Colfax, and other towns in Eastern Washington is heartbreaking and unimaginable,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who represents the area.

Inslee, a Democrat, pointed to climate change as a cause of the destruction in Malden.

“It looks like a bomb has gone off,″ Inslee said.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources on Tuesday closed all of the lands it manages east of the Cascades to recreation due to high fire danger.

With no recent lightning storms, the overwhelming majority of wildfires DNR is fighting are presumed to be human-caused, the agency said Tuesday.

“We expect hot, dry, fast-moving winds to continue,″ Franz said.

Meanwhile, wind, smoke and fire plagued Pierce County south of Seattle on Tuesday morning, closing highways, knocking out power and destroying six homes in the city of Graham.

A fire burning near Davenport, Washington, grew to 70,000 acres (28,300 hectares) Tuesday morning and was 0% contained, according to the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

Homes and crops were threatened by the fire that sparked when a tree fell on power lines on Labor Day weekend. At least three homes were destroyed by the fire, according to DNR spokeswoman Isabelle Hoygaard.

The Cold Springs Fire in Okanogan County in Washington state grew to 140,000 acres (56,655 hectares) and had no containment Tuesday. Multiple structures have been lost and mandatory evacuation orders and road closures are in place, officials said.

In Idaho, the Idaho State Fire Marshal’s Office said in a social media post that 13 homes were destroyed along with 31 other structures and 26 vehicles near the north-central Idaho town of Orofino. A fast-moving complex of smaller wildfires, covering about 1,600 acres (647 hectares), was burning in the region on Tuesday.

At the evacuation facility in Salem, Oregon, Patrica Fouts, 73, sat inside a fairgrounds building in a motorized wheelchair, cradling her dog Murphy. She had come on one of the bus trips from the Sublimity senior living center.

“It was scary,” Fouts said. “Especially as red as the sky was.”

She expected she might have to spend the night in the fairgrounds.

“I was just glad to be safe and away,” she said.


Associated Press writer Sara Cline contributed from Salem, Oregon. Selsky contributed from Salem.