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Oregon fires: Over 500,000 flee dozens of infernos

A sign warning of impending fire danger is posted on 10 September

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Getty Images

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Dozens of infernos are sweeping the state of Oregon

More than half a million people in the US state of Oregon are fleeing deadly wildfires that are raging across the Pacific Northwest, authorities say.

Fanned by unusually hot, dry winds, dozens of infernos are sweeping the state, and at least one is being treated as suspected arson.

Governor Kate Brown said the exact number of fatalities is not yet known, though at least three are confirmed.

More than 100 wildfires are currently scorching 12 western US states.

Oregon, California and Washington have borne the brunt of the wildfires, which have in several cases destroyed entire towns.

Some 4.4 million acres have been razed, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Rich Tyler, a spokesman for the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office, told the New York Times: “When you have a fire that burns through homes and businesses, you have open gas lines that are still spewing out natural gas, and those are burning.”

On Thursday evening, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management confirmed the latest evacuation figures, which amount to more than 10% of the state’s 4.2 million population.

Media captionFive ways that show the scale of California’s 2020 wildfires

Governor Brown, a Democrat, said in a news conference on Thursday: “We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across the state.” 

Among the evacuees are more than 1,300 mostly female prisoners from the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville.

The prison is under threat from two large wildfires that authorities believe could be about to merge.

Among the victims in Oregon are a 12-year-old boy and his grandmother, who died in a wildfire near Lyons, 70 miles (112km) south of Portland.

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Reuters

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A colour infrared satellite image shows destroyed homes after the Alameda Fire in Phoenix, Oregon: burned vegetation and property appear grey, surviving vegetation is in red

One of the most destructive Oregon blazes, the Almeda Fire, which started in Ashland near the border with California, is being treated by police as suspicious.

The Almeda Fire has been linked to at least two deaths and destroyed hundreds of homes in the towns of Phoenix and Talent.

Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara said: “We have good reason to believe that there was a human element to it.”

But rumours that fires in the Douglas County area were started by members of the left-wing “anti-fascist” or right-wing Proud Boys groups have been discounted by police.

The Oregon wildfires have also prompted mass evacuations in the suburbs of Portland.

According to the Portland Tribune newspaper, the pollution in the city on Thursday was ranked highest in the world, above Jakarta, Indonesia; Delhi, India; and Lahore, Pakistan.

Media caption“It’s like night-time in the daytime”: San Francisco’s skies turn orange

What is the situation elsewhere?

In Washington state, a one-year-old boy died and his parents were in a critical condition after smoke and flames overwhelmed them as they tried to escape the state’s largest wildfire, said officials in the northern county of Okanogan.

A wildfire also destroyed most of the homes in the old railroad town of Malden, in the east of the state. Police had run through the streets shouting at residents to flee for their lives as the flames closed in.

Another four people have died in the past two days from wildfires in California. There, some 64,000 people were under evacuation orders while 14,000 firefighters battle 29 major fires.

Six of the top 20 largest fires in the state’s history have occurred this year.

Saying goodbye to our first home

Sam Elm and her partner, Micah, lived in Phoenix, Oregon. Sam shared her experience fleeing from the wildfire – and saying goodbye to their home – with BBC OS.

A fire started in a nearby town and began encroaching. “It took our home,” she says. “It was an intense experience.”

“We were listening to the scanners…we were hearing it get closer and closer.

“At a certain point we got a call saying ‘you need to leave right now.’ It was raining ash on – everything.”

As they were about to leave, Sam says her wife called her upstairs to a wall in their home decorated with the signatures of friends, and members of their community – which Sam says was a “point of pride” for them.

“She slams her hand on the wall – because we’ve never signed our own wall, because it was our house we lived in – she traced her hand, she slammed my hand on the wall, she traced my hand, she kissed me and said: ‘Don’t forget this was our first home. And we left.”

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Sam and Micah Elm

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Sam Elm (left) and her wife Micah Elm had their first home burn down in a fire

Sam adds that she and her wife were the lucky ones. “Not everybody got to say goodbye to their homes – we did. Our pets are with us. We know people whose pets got stuck in their houses…we know people that are missing.”

Sam and Micah are currently staying with a friend, hoping to get a hotel room through insurance.

But she doesn’t know what six months down the line looks like now that they’ve lost their home. She says she has no clue “how to traverse any of this”.

Oregon fires: Over 500,000 flee dozens of infernos

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