Unprecedented levels of pollution were recorded Saturday in Oregon as tens-of-thousands of firefighters continue to battle deadly wildfires in the western U.S.
Ninety-seven large fires have burned more than 6,200 square miles across the western states, and evacuation orders were in place for 40 large fires in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Idaho and Utah, the National Interagency Fire Center said Saturday. Some evacuees have fled with just the clothes on their backs.
Smoke from the blazes has impacted the entire West Coast, posing a health hazard to millions. Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality said the entire state was reporting unhealthy or hazardous air Saturday morning.
Readings in Portland were the worst recorded since the department started monitoring there in 1985. There, the smoke filled the air with an acrid metallic scent like dull pennies. In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee encouraged Washington state residents to stay home as much as possible, keep doors and windows closed and avoid strenuous activities outdoors.
At least 28 people have died and hundreds of homes have been destroyed in the fires. At least 19 deaths have been reported in California, eight in Oregon and one in Washington state. Cal Fire previously reported 20 total deaths, but a local official in northern California retracted a reported death Friday, explaining that a burned anatomical skeleton used for academic purposes was mistaken for human remains. In Oregon, where officials have warned of a “mass fatality incident,” the state fire marshal has resigned because of a personnel matter unrelated to his handling of the fires, according to the Oregon State Police.
Oregon State Police Superintendent Travis Hampton named Chief Deputy Fire Marshal Mariana Ruiz-Temple, as the state’s Chief Deputy Fire Marshal. California has seen five of its 10 largest fires in history this year, Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said Friday, as well as two of its 20 most deadly. This fire season, more than 6,300 structures have been damaged or destroyed, and nearly 5,000 square miles have been burned, according to Cal Fire. Oregon and Washington state have also been hit hard. More than 1,400 square miles have burned in Oregon, and nearly 1,000 square miles in Washington state. (Here’s how big that really is.)
Dozens of people were missing in Oregon, 40,000 people have been evacuated, and more than 1,500 square miles have burned, Gov. Kate Brown said Friday. About 500,000 citizens are in different levels of evacuation zones, either having been told to leave or to prepare to do so, and more than 2,000 people were sheltered by the Red Cross on Thursday evening.
Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, said in a press conference Friday that the state was preparing for more fatalities, though he did not elaborate.
“We know we’re dealing with fire-related death, and we’re preparing for a mass fatality incident, based on what we know,” Phelps said.
In Washington, fires that started Monday have already created the second worst fire season in state history, Inslee said Friday. Families have lost their homes in areas across the state.
“These are extraordinary conditions that we are facing because of changes that are going on in our state,” he said.