by Cooper Bowen
Dozens of devastating forest fires, unprecedented in both number and sheer scale, continue to rage across the state of Oregon this week. Well over one million acres were scorched as of Friday, Sept. 11, forcing nearly 40,000 residents to evacuate their homes as entire communities burned to the ground virtually overnight.
Shattering centuries-old records in a matter of days, this near-apocalyptic storm of fires — driven by high winds, sweltering heat, and dead vegetation left after a decade-long drought across the West — led state officials to issue an evacuation warning to 500,000 Oregon residents, more than 10 percent of the entire state. With dozens of residents already reported missing, Andrew Phelps, the director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, noted on Friday: “We are preparing for a mass fatality incident based on what we know and the numbers of structures that have been lost.”
Firefighters expected two of the largest fires, Beachie Creek/Lionshead and Riverside — which combined have destroyed nearly 400,000 acres and are entirely uncontained — to merge and directly endanger the suburbs outside Portland by the weekend. Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland, Oregon’s largest city, declared a state of emergency on Thursday night while county officials put thousands of residents under a Level 3: Leave Immediately evacuation order.
Complicating evacuation efforts, a barrage of misinformation and unfounded rumors that claimed left-wing activists were systematically lighting fires led some residents to defy official orders. These false reports quickly snowballed across locally-based Facebook groups, their spread and influence fueled in large part by conservative residents’ antipathy towards the political unrest that has enveloped Portland; for over three months, right-wing militias and Antifa groups have clashed violently every night, leading to several deaths. Despite attempts by law enforcement to discredit the rumors, many still refused to leave their homes in hopes of personally defending their property from supposed looting and arson.
Earlier in the week, the Almeda fire almost completely leveled two small towns, Talent and Phoenix, in southern Oregon. Local officials estimated that the blaze consumed 1,000 homes in Phoenix and 600 in Talent, leaving 2,000 residents homeless, most of them low-income and elderly. Mobile and manufactured home parks nestled along the creek that runs through both towns were among the most hard-hit; residents described piles of ash, melted cars, and charred remnants of foundations as all that remained of once-thriving, close-knit communities.
On Friday night, a southern Oregon District Attorney charged 41-year old Michael Bakkela with intentionally starting a fire in Phoenix, which later combined with the Almeda fire. Police officers discovered Bakkela, who had a criminal record, at the scene, and arrested him for a parole violation. The Jackson County Sheriff’s office is further investigating the start of the Almeda fire in Ashland, and noted they suspected another case of arson after finding the remains of one man near the origin point.
In a statement released on Thursday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown described the fire season as a “once-in-a-generation event,” warning residents that it had the potential to become “the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfires in our state’s history.” She later tweeted: “If you are notified by local emergency officials to evacuate, please do so immediately. You may not get a second chance.”
(Sources: Oregon Department of Forestry, NYT, WP, NPR, The Oregonian, CNN, The Guardian, Fox News, USA Today)