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Dozens missing, Oregon prepares for ‘mass fatality event’ as firefighters battle 2 large fires

Ore. (AP) — Hundreds of firefighters battled two large wildfires Friday
that threatened to merge near the most populated part of Oregon,
including the suburbs of Portland, and the governor said dozens of
people are missing in other parts of the state.

The state’s
emergency management director, Andrew Phelps, said officials are
“preparing for a mass fatality event” and that thousands of structures
have been destroyed.

Gov. Kate Brown said more than 40,000
Oregonians have been evacuated and about 500,000 are in different levels
of evacuation zones, either having been told to leave or to prepare to
do so. She was dialing back on a statement late Thursday issued by the
state Office of Emergency Management that said a half-million people had
been ordered to evacuate statewide.

Dozens of people are missing
in Jackson County in the south and Marion County, where a fire continues
to burn east of Salem, Brown told a news conference Friday. Also
Friday, authorities announced that a man had been arrested on two counts
of arson for allegedly starting a fire in southern Oregon on Tuesday.

Oregon Convention Center in Portland was among the buildings being
transformed into shelters for evacuees. Portland, shrouded in smoke from
the fires, on Friday had the worst air quality of the world’s major cities, according to IQAir.

Guard troops and corrections officers transferred about 1,300 inmates
from a women’s prison in a southern suburb of Portland “out of an
abundance of caution,” the Oregon Department of Corrections said.
Spokeswoman Vanessa Vanderzee said it took 20 hours to transfer the
inmates Thursday to another prison in a safe zone.

A change in
the weather, with winds dropping and shifting direction and humidity
rising, greatly helped firefighters struggling to prevent the two fires
from advancing farther west into more-populated areas.

“The wind
laid down quite a bit for us yesterday. There also wasn’t that strong
eastern wind that was pushing the fire more to the west,” said Stefan
Myers of the state’s fire information team.

Winds coming from the Pacific Ocean also neutralized the fires’ advance and even pushed them back, Myers said.

500 personnel were working on the fires, which were just a few miles
(kilometers) apart, with rugged terrain between them that limits
boots-on-the-ground efforts to keep them apart, Myers said. If they
merge, they could generate such heat that it causes embers to fly
thousands of feet into the air, potentially igniting other areas, Myers

The high number of fires occurring simultaneously in the
span of just a few days in Oregon was fueled by dry conditions, high
temperatures and especially strong, swirling winds.

Brown said
Thursday that more than 1,400 square miles (3,600 square kilometers)
have burned in Oregon over the past three days, nearly double the land
that burns in a typical year in the state and an area greater than the
size of Rhode Island.

Oregon officials haven’t released an exact
death count for the wildfires, but at least six fatalities have been
reported in the state. A 1-year-old boy was killed in wildfires in

A Northern California fire that tore through several hamlets in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada this week killed 10 people, making it the deadliest of the year.

In Oregon, evacuation centers opened across the state.

Kim Carbaugh fled from her home in Lyons with her husband, two children and two horses Monday.

we were driving away and I could see actual fire, the red and orange
flames, at the time I didn’t feel scared, I had so much adrenaline — we
just had to leave,” she said Friday from the livestock stables of the
evacuation center at the State Fairgrounds in Salem.

One fire
approached Molalla, triggering a mandatory evacuation order for the
community of about 9,000 located 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of
Portland. A police car rolled through the streets with a loudspeaker
blaring “evacuate now.”

With the two large fires — called the
Beachie Fire and the Riverside Fire — threatening to merge, some
firefighters in Clackamas County, which encompasses Molalla, were told
to disengage temporarily Thursday because of the danger. Officials tried
to reassure residents who abandoned their homes and law enforcement
officials said police patrols would be stepped up to prevent looting.

change in weather also aided efforts to contain a fire near Lincoln
City, on the Oregon Coast, that according to an estimate has damaged or
destroyed at least 100 structures.

“Thank God, we got a wind
shift. The wind started coming from the west, pushing the fire back
towards the east, and that’s what kept it within its footprint and kept
it from growing,” fire spokesperson Ashley Lertora said.

congressional delegation announced Friday that the White House has
approved the state’s request for an emergency declaration that will help
provide immediate assistance from the Federal Emergency Management

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler said Friday that a
41-year-old man was jailed on two charges of arson for a fire that
started Tuesday in the Phoenix area in southern Oregon.

said the Almeda fire, which burned hundreds of homes, had ignition
points in Ashland near the spot where a man was found dead, and in
Phoenix. Authorities said the man was arrested at the second ignition
point in Phoenix and that he denied starting the fire.

Police are still investigating the first ignition point in Ashland.

southern Oregon near the California state line, much of the small town
of Phoenix was wiped out. A mobile home park, houses and businesses were
burned, leaving twisted remains on charred ground.

Many of the residents were immigrants, with few resources to draw on.

Guterrez, a single father of four, had been at work at a vineyard when
he saw thick smoke spreading through Rogue River Valley. He snatched his
kids to safety. They escaped with only the clothes they were wearing.

“I’m going to start all over again. It’s not easy but it’s not impossible either,” said Guterrez.

a news conference Friday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee noted that the
amount of land burned in just the past five days amounted to the state’s
second-worst fire season, after 2015. He called the blazes “climate
fires” rather than wildfires.

“This is not an act of God,” Inslee said. “This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways.”

LIVE: Oregon Governor Kate Brown discusses the state's wildfires.

LIVE: Oregon Governor Kate Brown discusses the state's wildfires. MORE:

Posted by WISH-TV on Friday, September 11, 2020

Associated Press writers Gillian Flaccus in Phoenix, Oregon and Lisa Baumann and Gene Johnson in Seattle contributed to this report. AP freelance photographer Paula Bronstein also contributed to this report from Talent and Phoenix, Oregon.