Dozens missing amid a million burned acres in Oregon
Dozens of people are missing as state officials look for those who may have stayed behind in the over 1 million acres that have burned in major wildfires across Oregon since Monday.
"We are preparing for a mass fatality incident," said Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management.
Gov. Kate Brown declined to estimate the number of missing, possibly dead, or the amount of structural damage and repair costs associated with the fires.
"Right now, the firefighters are focused on saving lives," she said.
Brown and Phelps spoke along with other fire, military and public health officials Friday at a fire press briefing in Salem.
Weather is turning cooler and there is even a chance of rain in the forecast for western Oregon, making for a better environment to fight fires in the coming week, said Doug Grafe, Chief of Fire Protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry.
Officials said the main areas of concern over missing and perhaps dead residents were in Lane, Marion and Jackson counties. Fires swept through several small towns along the McKenzie and Santiam rivers on Monday and Tuesday, driven by winds pushing flames down the west side of the Cascade Mountains.
The Almeda Fire in Jackson County burned more than 600 homes in the towns of Phoenix and Talent, between Ashland to the south and Medford to the north.
Phelps said it will take years for the state to fully recover from the fires of the past week. Brown said hundreds, likely thousands will be left homeless after the damage is surveyed.
Brown said she spoke to President Donald Trump on Thursday evening about the federal disaster declaration that will bring additional federal manpower and money to the state's aid.
"He said you have all of our support, please let us know what you need, and 'God Bless Oregon,'" Brown recounted.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has dispatched 15 tractor-trailers full of food, cots and other supplies to key points around the state. Additional aid was coming from the American Red Cross and other agencies and organizations.
Grafe said the turn in the weather means firefighters can go on the offensive, with the biggest challenge being a 400,000-acre blaze created by the merger of the Riverside, Santiam/Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires. The burn area stretched from Warm Springs in Jefferson County, to the eastern edges of Salem and the southeastern suburbs of Portland. The fire's movement has been slowed near the Clackamas County town of Estacada.
Firefighters have been able to hold the line on the 156,000-acre Holiday Farm Fire east of Eugene and the 115,000-acre Archie Fire east of Roseburg.
A major goal is to get crews up the east-west highways from the Willamette Valley over the Cascades, including highways 22, 20, 126 and 138. Then they will be able to assess casualties and damage, as well as close the loop around major fires.
The other large fire that is far from extinguished is the 136,000-acre Slater Fire, which has burned from Siskiyou County in California into Josephine County in Oregon.
Grafe said firefighters have contained other smaller fires that they are now looking to work to extinguish and get "off the map" so that resources can be sent to fight the larger blazes. Fires that officials believed they can soon put out include the Echo Mountain Fire near Lincoln City, and fires near Bay City in Tillamook County and Coos Bay. Also on their way to being extinguished are remnants of the Almeda Fire in Jackson County, the Two-Four-Two Fire in Klamath County, and a fire near Newberg in Yamhill County.
Reinforcements are on the way for the 3,000 firefighters across the state. Crews from Utah, Canada, the active duty Army, plus federal agencies have started arriving. The goal is to double the number of crews over the next few weeks. Efforts are being made to keep those on the line from having to leave or sacrifice their careers. About one-third are college students who work for private firefighting contractors with the state. Brown has asked universities and community colleges to not penalize them for missing the beginning of the fall semester while they are on duty.
Three 125-soldier National Guard firefighting teams are being sent to various fires around the state. National Guard troops assisted in transferring inmates from the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, which was deemed too close to the fires, to Madras.
Phelps, with the state emergency management office, said that people in fire areas should register with the Red Cross to help account for those who are presumed missing. He asked residents who have been evacuated to wait until authorities give the green light to return to their homes. Oregon State Police and National Guard are assisting local law enforcement to prevent any looting in fire areas. Phelps also warned that scam artists take advantage of disasters to get people to pay for services and then disappear with the money. He suggested homeowners get in touch with their insurance carriers as soon as possible.
Brown again underlined that climate science has shown global warming will lead to shorter, warmer winters and hotter, drier fire seasons in years to come.