MOLALLA: With resources stretched to the limit, weary crews on Thursday fought from the air and on the ground against deadly wildfires sweeping the western United States, with a U.S. senator saying parts of Oregon now resemble the aftermath of World War Two firebombings.
Scores of fires have burned some 3.2 million acres (1.3 million hectares) in California since mid-August and another 1.6 million acres (647,500 hectares) in Oregon and Washington state since Labor Day on Sept. 7, laying waste to several small towns, destroying thousands of homes and claiming at least 34 lives.
The Oregon Department of Forestry said 6,500 firefighters from the state and elsewhere in the United States and Canada were working to stop the blazes, along with other government agency emergency responders and community members. Twenty-six fires were still active in Oregon on Thursday, according to the state`s Office of Emergency Management.
California`s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said more than 17,400 firefighters were deployed against 26 fires in the most populous U.S. state. U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon described driving 600 miles (965 km) in his state to get a firsthand look at the devastation, visiting refugee centers, fire control centers and towns burned by the blazes.
“That 600 miles, I never got out of the smoke. I remember fires in the past where I was driving and I would be in the smoke for 20 or 30 minutes – that`s a big fire. This is apocalyptic,” Merkley told CNN. “To see … these towns burnt to the ground, it looks like a World War Two town hit by firebombing – thousands of homes destroyed, residences destroyed.”
Merkley said a lot of affordable housing was lost, including apartment buildings and mobile home parks, while some commercial districts were burned to the ground. “It`s overwhelming,” the Democratic senator added. The West Coast wildfires have filled the region`s skies with smoke and soot, but some areas on Thursday were the clearest they have been in days.
Kyle Sullivan, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Medford, Oregon, said a clearing of the smoke has allowed more firefighting to take place in the air with helicopters and planes dropping retardant. “We haven`t seen a lot of significant fire growth (this week). It hasn`t been super windy or super hot,” Sullivan said. Eight deaths have been confirmed in Oregon. One fire-related fatality has been confirmed in Washington state. California`s death toll stood at 25.
`DREAMING OF FIRE`
Drew Hansen, a 31-year-old logger raised on a tree farm near Molalla, Oregon, about an hour south of Portland, was part of a volunteer firefighting force battling the Riverside and Beachie Creek fires since Sept. 8. “This is my backyard, we`re fighting for our homes and families up here,” Hansen said as he and a crew rested outside his parents` farmhouse, about five miles (8 km) southeast of Molalla. “It feels like we`ve not slept in a week. Even when I have slept, I`m dreaming of fire.”
Just down the mountain road from Hansen, the fire`s toll was clear. One side of the road was lush and green. The other side looked like a moonscape of white and black ash, with giant tree stumps still smoldering. All along the mountain roads in and around Molalla, farm families put out handmade signs, thanking those who risked their lives to battle the flames.
“This little town was surrounded by fire not long ago, and it was the civilians who stepped in when we needed help the most,” said Ashley Bentley, owner of a local feed store whose husband was among those in the woods fighting fires. “We had to act or the fire was going to take our town.”
With the potential for some rain beginning on Friday in affected areas of Oregon, weather conditions may help the fight. “We are anticipating a small amount of moisture coming in this weekend, but it`s not going to be enough to end the fire season. It`ll help with firefighting efforts, but we`re still anxious about the potential for new starts,” the Bureau of Land Management`s Sullivan said.
With improved weather finally enabling fire crews to take the offensive, crews have worked to beat back Oregon`s largest blaze this season: the 190,000-acre (76,900-hectare) Beachie Creek fire. It was 20% contained as of Thursday afternoon. Cooler weather and increasing humidity on Thursday was expected to help firefighting efforts in California, but authorities said warmer and drier weather over the weekend would bring more fire danger. Some 5,400 structures have been destroyed since mid-August in California.