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Firestorm puts state in 'unprecedented times'

As if 2020 couldn’t get any worse, hundreds, maybe thousands, of Oregonians are homeless after raging fires driven by high winds destroyed communities across the state.

In the Rogue Valley, houses and businesses burned to the ground as the Almeda fire raced out of Ashland and tore through Talent and Phoenix, stopping short of Medford only because the winds lessened at nightfall and firefighters finally got the upper hand.

That was Tuesday. On Wednesday, the Obenchain fire near Eagle Point grew even larger than the day before, forcing evacuations up Highway 62 through Shady Cove.

Gov. Kate Brown was a little slow in recognizing the damage being done at the southern end of the state. She announced Tuesday in a 3 p.m. news conference that fires ravaging Lincoln, Washington, Lane, Marion and Clackamas counties were “a once in a generation event,” and declared a conflagration emergency. State Forestry Department officials noted at the time that two fires were reported in the Medford area.

It was nearly 9 p.m. before Brown tweeted that she had added a third conflagration declaration for “the Alameda Fire” in Jackson County, misspelling the name Almeda. Some confusion is understandable under the circumstances, but it doesn’t inspire confidence that Southern Oregon is getting the same consideration as the northern half of the state.

On Wednesday, the governor said, “This could be the greatest loss of human life and property due to wildfire in our state’s history.” The communities of Detroit, Blue River, Vida, Phoenix and Talent were “substantially destroyed,” Brown said. Hundreds of homes were lost, and more than 300,000 acres were burning across the state.

Doug Grafe, the Oregon Department of Forestry’s chief of fire protection, said the first three days of the week could well have been the worst fire conditions in state history. High winds, dry fuels and heat combined to put the state “absolutely in unprecedented times,” he said.

Unprecedented was an apt description for the relentless run of fire reports, topped of by a new blaze in Central Point Wednesday afternoon.

Firefighters and law enforcement have performed exceptionally well under merciless pressure. They deserve our thanks and appreciation.

Federal disaster aid is essential to address this situation. Brown has asked President Donald Trump for an emergency declaration, and Oregon’s entire congressional delegation has sent a letter urging the president to grant the request without delay.

Recovering from this devastating chain of events will take massive federal assistance and a great deal of time. An emergency declaration is just the beginning.