Around half a million people in Oregon are under evacuation alerts, with residents of its largest city told to be ready to leave as wildfires that have taken at least 24 lives since erupting in August tore through three US West Coast states.
About 100 wildfires have belched out smoke that poses a health threat and giving California, Oregon and Washington some of the worst air quality levels anywhere around the globe.
In hard-hit Oregon, search teams on Friday entered areas where fires burned through small communities, the head of the state’s office of emergency management said, adding that authorities were prepared for possible “mass casualty incidents.”
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Molalla, a community about 40km south of downtown Portland, was an ash-covered ghost town after its more than 9000 residents were told to evacuate, with only 30 refusing to leave, the city’s fire department said.
The logging town was on the front line of a vast evacuation zone stretching north to within 5km of downtown Portland, with Clackamas County police setting a 10pm curfew to deter “possible increased criminal activity.”
State Governor Kate Brown told a press conference that 40,000 people were under mandatory evacuation alerts.
Some 500,000 residents were under evacuation advisories of either red “GO!” warnings to leave homes immediately, yellow “BE SET” warnings to leave at a moment’s notice, or green “BE READY” alerts, she said
A drop in winds, higher moisture levels and forecast rain were expected to help firefighters going into the weekend in towns like Molalla, at the mercy of wind strength and direction after two of Oregon’s largest wildfires merged into one.
Blazes jumped from wildfires burning through scrub and forest, exploding into suburban firestorms as flames leaped from house to house.
In neighbouring Washington state to the north, online video from the Tacoma area showed fires starting in a residential area and setting homes ablaze. People were seen running from house to house to warn neighbours.
The death toll from the siege of West Coast fires that began in August jumped to 24 after seven people were reported killed in a fire burning in mountains around 140km north of Sacramento, California.
More than 3900 homes and others structures have burned in California alone.
More than 68,000 people were under evacuation orders in California where the largest fire in state history has burned over 299,500 hectares in the Mendocino National Forest around 190km northwest of Sacramento.
Police opened an arson investigation into the fire that destroyed much of Phoenix and Talent in Oregon.
Scientists say climate change has contributed to greater extremes in wet and dry seasons, causing vegetation to flourish then dry out, leaving more abundant, volatile fuel for fires.
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