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Governor: 'This could be the greatest loss of life and structures ... in state history'

Oregon is being swept by likely the most deadly and destructive fires in its history, Gov. Kate Brown said Wednesday.

“I want to be upfront with Oregonians,” Brown said. “This could be the greatest loss of life and structures due to wildfire in state history.”

As of noon Wednesday, 47 active fires covering 374,522 acres were burning in Oregon, according to the Oregon Office of Emergency Management.

Brown said that the communities of Blue River and Vida in Lane County had been devastated, while Phoenix and Talent in Southern Oregon reported significant damage.

State officials said they had no number yet on casualties, but they were expected. Mortuary units from the Oregon National Guard are being activated.

The fires continue to burn largely unchallenged as firefighters concentrate on evacuating people to safety.

“We are having limited success,” said Doug Grafe, with the Department of Forestry. “Most I would put at 0% containment.”

Brown said that towns along the western facing valleys of the Santiam River, McKenzie River and Rogue River had been destroyed.

The largest blaze is the Santiam/Beachie Creek fire, at 132,450 acres, burning east of Salem. It was 0% contained. The Lionshead fire has burned 109,222 acres. Fire officials said they expected the fires in the Santiam River area to combine into one large blaze.

About 3,000 firefighters were deployed.

“I would expect that to scale up over the next 24 hours as we get on the offense on these fires,” Grafe said.

But reinforcements are not plentiful because of fires across the western United States breaking out at the same time.

“The national system is absolutely strained,” Grafe said. “We have to work with what we have.”

Much of eastern Lane County has been under evacuation orders because of the Holiday Farm fire. Residents in Leaburg, Walterville, Camp Creek and portions of the Mohawk Valley were ordered to leave. In Marion County, Scott’s Mills and Stayton remained under Level 3 “go” evacuations. Sublimity, Aumsville and Silverton were at Level 2 “be ready.”

The Almeda fire reportedly began as a small blaze in grass adjacent to Interstate 5 in Ashland. It burned north, destroying homes and other structures in Phoenix, Talent and Medford.

Jackson County issued Level 3 “go” evacuations for the upper Rogue River towns of Shady Cove and Trail Wednesday as winds drove the Obenchain fire into the towns.

Oregon Caves National Monument was closed, and Highway 199 leading to the Oregon Coast was closed as fires raged on both sides of the Oregon-California border from Happy Camp, California to Cave Junction.

In Chiloquin, the Four Two Fire was forcing more evacuations.

Brown pointed to the unpredictability of the blazes as a warning for residents across the state to be ready if evacuation orders are given.

“Fire can be very fickle,” she said, adding that if ordered to evacuate, “please leave — you may not get another chance.”

The Devil, Slater and Bailey fires were burning just across the California state line. The Auburn, Woodhead and Mann fires are burning in Idaho near the Oregon border.

At least seven active fires were burning on the Washington side of the Columbia River, between Long Beach in the west and Paterson in the east.

Fires are also burning on the west side of the coastal range, with evacuations ordered in parts of Lincoln County.

The National Guard has been operating seven aircraft to support the firefighting. These include HH-60M Black Hawk helicopters. Two are doing medical evacuation, the rest are firefighting.

Six CH-47 Chinook helicopters with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment had been sent to Afghanistan to support military operations. The Chinooks are normally the largest firefighting helicopter.

Grafe said the state had enough aircraft to meet its needs and that the high winds and dense smoke were keeping many on the ground for now.

Evacuations will continue to be the main focus until at least Thursday.

“Life safety is our No. 1 priority,” said Office of Emergency Management Director Andrew Phelps.

Delaying as fire races toward a community is not an option.

“Once that Level 3 evacuation order comes, you have to get out, there is no time left,” Phelps said.

Red Cross evacuation centers have been set up at Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center in Redmond, Taft High School in Lincoln City, Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem, Thurston High School in Eugene, Douglas County Fairgrounds in Roseburg and Clackamas Community College in Oregon City.

Brown said state and local officials are working to disperse evacuees and not have them congregate in one spot, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Red Cross centers are the staging area for relief efforts and evacuees are being urged to register with the Red Cross so they can be found by friends and family.

Seventeen new large fires started Tuesday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Nationwide, 96 large fires have burned more than 3.4 million acres. Just under 2 million acres are burning in California alone.

There is currently an Air Quality Alert for the Oregon Coast, Willamette Valley, Southern Oregon. Hazardous Air Quality is also reported in Florence, Corvallis and Silverton.

Good air quality is reported in Bend, while Moderate Air Quality is reported in Sisters and Madras. Air quality was moderate in locations in Eastern Oregon along the I-84 corridor.

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneThe Almeda fire burns Tuesday in Jackson County.