(Sept. 12) Diminishing winds and rising humidity helped firefighters battling deadly blazes in Oregon and California, but with dozens of people still missing, authorities in both states feared that the receding flames could reveal many more dead across the blackened landscape.
Oregon’s emergency management director said officials were preparing for a possible “mass fatality event,” and the state fire marshal was abruptly placed on administrative leave.
In California, smoke that painted skies orange also helped crews corral the state’s deadliest blaze of the year. The smoke helped blocked the sun, reducing temperatures and raising humidity, officials said.
Nine people, including a 16-year-old boy, have been confirmed dead in California since lightning-caused fires that started weeks ago fused into a monster blaze that largely destroyed Berry Creek, a tiny hamlet in the Sierra Nevada foothills northeast of San Francisco.
Oregon authorities have not released an exact death count, but at least eight fatalities were reported from the blazes that have taken a toll from one end of the state to the other. Gov. Kate Brown said Friday that tens of thousands of people had been forced to flee their homes.
Two large blazes threatened to merge near the most populated part of Oregon, including the suburbs of Portland.
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More than 40,000 Oregonians have been evacuated and about 500,000 are in different levels of evacuation zones, having been told to leave or to prepare to do so, Brown said. The governor dialed back a statement late Thursday by the state Office of Emergency Management that said a half-million people had been ordered to evacuate statewide.
Scores of people were missing in Jackson County in the southern area of the state and in Marion County east of Salem, the state capital, Brown told a news conference. Authorities also announced that a man had been arrested on two counts of arson in connection with a fire in southern Oregon.
Searchers found two victims of the so-called Beachie Creek fire near Salem. A 1-year-old boy was killed in wildfires in Washington, authorities said.
Amid the smoke and flame, the Oregon fire marshal was placed on paid leave Saturday. Oregon State Police Superintendent Travis Hampton said the crisis demanded an urgent response, which required a leadership change. Fire Marshal Jim Walker was replaced on an acting basis by the chief deputy fire marshal.
Improved weather helped efforts on the ground after days of high winds, heat and low humidity. “The wind laid down quite a bit for us yesterday,” said Stefan Myers of the state’s fire information team.
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