Stunned residents tour Oregon town devastated by wildfires
Stunned residents of the small Oregon town of Phoenix walked through a scene of devastation Thursday after one of the state’s many wildfires wiped out much of their community, including a mobile home park, houses and businesses.
After spending the night in their cars in a Home Depot parking lot, a stream of people walked into what was left of the town that hugs Interstate 5 near the California border. They hauled wagons and carried backpacks and bags to salvage whatever they could.
Jonathan Weir defied evacuation orders as flames 30 feet (9 meters) high shot from the trees. He drove his car to the entrance of a nearby mobile home park, where his tires began melting. His home was destroyed as the fire hopscotched through the town of 4,000 residents.
“There were flames across the street from me, flames to the right of me, flames to the left of me. I just watched everything burn,” Weir told a reporter.
Wildfires were also causing chaos in Washington state and California, where hot, dry and windy weather combined to create near-perfect conditions for flames.
The small farming town of Malden in eastern Washington was mostly destroyed, losing its fire station, post office, city hall and library. In California, thousands of homes were threatened Thursday after winds whipped a blaze into a monster that incinerated houses in a small mountain community and killed at least three people. Experts say the California fires are growing bigger and moving faster than ever before.
Oregon officials were shocked by the number of simultaneous fires, which stood at 39 on Thursday morning, according to the Oregon Office of Emergency Management.
Gov. Kate Brown said more than 900,000 acres (364,000 hectares) have burned across the state in the last three days — nearly double the territory that burns in a typical year. She told a news conference that the exact number of fatalities was not yet known. Up to 40,000 people have fled from their homes.
“We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across the state,” Brown said.
The windy, hot conditions were expected to continue through Thursday. The governor said she has requested firefighting help from other states and the federal government.
By Thursday afternoon, a fire approached the town of Molalla, triggering a mandatory evacuation order for the community of about 9,000 people about 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of Portland.
Back in Phoenix, Jerry Walker fled in his pajamas and only had time to grab some cash. He did not know if his apartment complex survived.
“I’ve never seen devastation like this ever in my life," Walker said. "I don’t know how we’re going on to recover.”
Phoenix City Councilman Al Muelhoefer said the north end of the town was gone, but he had heard of no fatalities.
At least three people in Oregon were reported killed, including a boy and his grandmother, and several others critically burned. Deaths in Washington included a 1-year-old boy.
Elsewhere, wildfires damaged towns in a canyon and the foothills of the Cascade Range, where the remains of a boy and his dog were found. Flames also hit the coastal town of Lincoln City and Estacada, 30 miles (48 kilometers) southeast of Portland.
Fires also erupted along Interstate 5, forcing a shutdown Wednesday of the main freeway along the West Coast. U.S. Highway 101, the main coastal highway running through California, Oregon and Washington, was affected too.
Evacuees poured into the state fairgrounds in Salem, many bringing their animals.
Assisted by neighbors and strangers, Catherine Shields evacuated her home in Silverton with a menagerie of animals. As smoke obscured the sun and ash fell from the sky, the group helped load three horses, a donkey, two llamas, a dozen sheep, geese, ducks, turkeys and dogs into trailers and vehicles.
She marveled at how people were pulling together despite the nation’s political divisiveness.
“In the last 24 hours, we just felt people are doing their best," Shields said Wednesday as she walked one of the horses at the fairgrounds.
Officials said winds have died down and cooler marine winds were expected. But at midday Thursday, heavy smoke blanketed the Willamette Valley, which runs from Portland to Eugene. Visibility in Salem was reduced to a few hundred yards (meters).
Portland television station KOIN reported that police confirmed that a boy and his grandmother died in a wildfire near Lyons, Oregon. The Jackson County sheriff confirmed at least one death and a criminal investigation at the origin point of a wildfire that started near Ashland, according to the Mail Tribune in Medford.
Lloyd Dean Holland, a Vietnam veteran, barely escaped his home in Estacada on Tuesday night. He left his rental house as flames exploded in cedar trees around him. He said his sole remaining possessions — his dog, rifles, dentures and some clothing — were all in the truck he used to flee.
“I’ve been through hell and high water but nothing like this. I’ve been shot down and shot at but this — last night — I’m still not over it,” Holland said.
Back in Phoenix, Marty Curtis was luckier. Her house was spared. She escaped with her cat, Louie.
“You could see the flames. You could hear things popping — gas tanks and propane tanks exploding,” she said. “I have my house. I have my life. I have my cat and I have my job — and right now, that’s all I need.”