‘Unprecedented’ Pacific fires burn hundreds of US homes

‘Unprecedented’ Pacific fires burn hundreds of US homes
The Bear Fire burns in Oroville, California (Noah Berger/AP)

Winds gusting as high as 50 mph fanned dozens of catastrophic wildfires across a large swath of Washington state and Oregon that rarely experiences such intense fire activity because of the Pacific Northwest’s cool and wet climate.

Oregon’s governor said hundreds of homes were destroyed.

Firefighters were struggling to try to contain and douse the blazes and officials in some places were giving residents just minutes to evacuate their homes.

The fires trapped firefighters and civilians behind fire lines in Oregon and levelled an entire small town in eastern Washington.

The devastation could become overwhelming, said Oregon Governor Kate Brown.

“This could be the greatest loss of human life and property due to wildfire in our state’s history,” Ms Brown told reporters.

No fatalities from the Northwest fires have yet been confirmed, but Ms Brown said some communities have been substantially destroyed and “hundreds of homes lost.”

The scenes were similar to California’s terrifying wildfire drama, where residents have fled fires raging unchecked throughout the state.

Flames shoot from a home as the Bear Fire burns through the Berry Creek area of Butte County, California (Noah Berger/AP)

But officials in the Pacific Northwest said they did not recall ever having to deal with so many destructive fires at once in the areas where they were burning.

The blazes exploded on Monday during a late-summer wind storm that saw gusts reach 75 mph.

Sheriff’s deputies, travelling with chainsaws in their patrol cars to cut fallen trees blocking roads, went door to door in rural communities 40 miles south of Portland, telling people to evacuate.

Since Tuesday, as many as 16,000 people have been told to abandon their homes.

“These winds are so incredible and are spreading so fast, we don’t have a lot of time,” said Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts.

Fires were burning in seven Oregon counties and rural and suburban homes miles away from Portland, Oregon’s largest city, were under preliminary orders to prepare for possible evacuations.

Three prisons were evacuated late on Tuesday and Ms Brown called the state’s blazes unprecedented.

The Pacific Northwest is no stranger to wildfires, but most of the biggest ones until now have been in the eastern or southern parts of the region — where the weather is considerably hotter and drier and the vegetation more fire-prone than it is in the western portion of the region.

Fires in 2017 and 2018 crested the top of the Cascade Mountains — the long spine that divides dry eastern Oregon from the lush western part of the state — but never before spread into the valleys below, said Doug Grafe, chief of Fire Protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry.

“We do not have a context for this amount of fire on the landscape,” he said.

“Seeing them run down the canyons the way they have — carrying tens of miles in one period of an afternoon and not slowing down in the evening – (there is) absolutely no context for that in this environment.”

Fire crews were focusing on trying to keep people out of harm’s way and preventing houses from burning.

Officials said that containing the fires was a secondary priority on Wednesday, although there was concern some fires south of Portland could merge and become a much larger inferno that would be more difficult for firefighters to handle.

“We’re really at the mercy of the weather right now,” said Clackamas Fire District Chief Fred Charlton.

In Washington state, Governor Jay Inslee said more than 330,000 acres (133,546 hectares) burned in Washington in a 24-hour period — an area larger than the acreage that normally burns during entire fire seasons that stretch from spring into autumn.

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