Dozens Missing Amid Wildfires as States Look to Weather for Relief


President Trump will visit California on Monday to be briefed about blazes that have burned more than three million acres. Tens of thousands of people have evacuated in Oregon.

Video
Video player loading
More than a million acres have burned in the state, destroying entire towns and filling the air with dangerous smoke.CreditCredit...Adrees Latif/Reuters

Dozens of people remain missing in Oregon as wildfires that have torched millions of acres across the West continue to burn on Saturday, the death toll rising to 20 and smoke choking residents in cities far from the fires.

With the blazes still spreading and many homes destroyed, Oregon’s director of emergency management said this week that the state feared a “mass fatality incident.” Three additional deaths in the state were announced after his warning, and later on Saturday, Nathan Sickler, the sheriff in Jackson County, Ore., said recovery crews had found the remains of a total of five people this week in the wreckage of the Almeda Fire.

“It’s sad and I don’t have more information than that at this time,” Sheriff Sickler said.

But as residents prepared for more pain, they also hoped that changing weather might help them this weekend. Doug Grafe, chief of Fire Protection for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said that the strong winds that had spread the fires had dissipated, and that cooler temperatures and higher humidity would help fire crews fight the blazes.

Oregon, Washington and California are all under assault from a wildfire season of historic proportions, with the firefighting effort compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and misinformation online. President Trump will visit McClellan Park, Calif., on Monday to be briefed on the wildfires, the White House announced.

Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats of Oregon, and Representative Greg Walden, a Republican whose district includes the site of the Almeda Fire, visited an evacuee relief site in Central Point on Saturday morning. The congressmen were scheduled to tour the cities of Phoenix and Talent, which were devastated by the blaze.

Video
Video player loading
Gov. Gavin Newsom of California surveyed wildfire damage and delivered an update on the state’s efforts to curb the fire’s spread.

“We could be looking at a challenging Sunday,” Mr. Wyden said of upcoming firefighting conditions. He said that firefighting efforts would be backed by $3 billion in federal funds.

Mr. Walden said he had sent the White House a video of the damage in the area that the group toured on Saturday. He said he was hoping to discuss recovery efforts with Mr. Trump at an event on Wednesday in Washington.

The fires in Oregon have burned more than one million acres — a larger area than Rhode Island — and the state’s air quality ranks among the worst in the world. Tens of thousands of people have already been evacuated, and about 500,000 are in areas that may be ordered to flee.

“Almost anywhere in the state you can feel this right now,” Gov. Kate Brown said.

In Washington, where fires have burned more than 626,000 acres this week, Gov. Jay Inslee said the state was suffering “a cataclysmic event.”

California has had more than 3.1 million acres go up in flames, about 26 times as much as the state had burned at this point last year, and officials warn that more fires are likely. One of the fire complexes burning this week became the largest in the state’s history, having burned across 747,000 acres.

“It’s just something we’ve never seen in our lifetime,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Friday, standing amid charred trees and a yellow haze of smoke left by the raging fires.

[Sign up for California Today, our daily newsletter from the Golden State.]

A Mexican fire crew ready to help. Homeless people struggling to breathe while camping outside. A cat with singed paws saved from a fire.

These are among the stories unearthed by local news outlets in the West, which have been covering the devastating wildfires ravaging their communities. Here’s a brief sampling of the coverage emerging from those closest to the disasters.

**

In Ashland, Ore., a group of firefighters from Guanajuato, Mexico, arrived to help their “sister city” fight the Almeda fire, according to The Ashland Tidings, a local paper that featured a video of the Mexican crew.

One of the firefighters, Jorge Anguiano, said his crew had come to Jackson County, Ore., many times in the past for wildfire training. As soon as they learned of the devastation in the area, he said, “we decided to come here to help.”

“Anything we can do, we will do it,” he said.

The Guanajuato crew, he said, includes a veterinarian, who is helping to treat horses, cats, dogs and other animals that have been brought to the Jackson County Expo, a fairgrounds where a shelter has been set up.

**

Hoping to save some of North America’s largest birds from wildfires in Clackamas County, Ore., zookeepers mobilized this week to relocate more than 40 California condors from the Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation at Oregon Zoo, according to Willamette Week.

Zookeepers drove 26 of the birds, including two chicks, to the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, the paper reported. The rest of the condors — which can have wingspans of up to 10 feet — were moved to the Oregon Zoo.

“It’s been a tough week, but the best news is all our condors and staff members are healthy, uninjured and accounted for,” Travis Koons, who oversees the zoo’s condor program, said in a statement. “The teamwork our animal-care staff displayed was nothing short of remarkable.”

**

The dangers of the wildfires for homeless people were the focus of a story in The Beaverton Valley Times, a newspaper in Beaverton, Ore. The paper noted that state officials have warned people to stay inside to avoid breathing smoke from wildfires, but that isn’t an option for many people without housing.

“I don’t use a tent — I just tried to hunker down in my sleeping bag,” Alan Moore, who is homeless and camps in Washington County, Ore., told the paper after the high winds of last week.

Lorenzo Bennett told the paper that he had taken a bus to a day shelter in Cornelius, Ore., from downtown Portland, where he had been camping for months after the coronavirus pandemic forced his employer to lay him off and he couldn’t pay for the room he was renting.

He said he was planning to have lunch at the shelter and then head back to Portland, where he knows places to sleep.

“It’s kind of scary just looking up and seeing the smoke,” Mr. Bennett said.

**

He’s calling the yellow cat with the singed paws his “fire cat.”

Daniel Trevizo, a fire captain with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, said he rescued the kitten near the Bear Fire on Thursday, according The Record Searchlight, a newspaper in Shasta County, Calif.

“While we were cleaning up an area, we heard meowing and sure enough, this little kitten comes running up as friendly as can be,” Captain Trevizo told the paper.

He said he put the cat in the pocket of his yellow fire jacket while he and his crew watered down embers near Lake Oroville, the paper reported.

“We’re going ahead and keeping him safe and secure until we can drop him off to animal control,” Captain Trevizo said

“He’s a good little fire cat.”

ImageAn evacuation site in Salem, Ore., on Saturday.
An evacuation site in Salem, Ore., on Saturday.Credit...Kristina Barker for The New York Times

Dry, windy conditions that have worsened fires and vexed firefighters this season were expected to continue in parts of the West on Saturday, but officials say they are hopeful that wetter weather in the coming days may help them to contain the fires.

The National Weather Service issued a “red flag” warning for parts of southern Oregon and Northern California through the weekend and said that a combination of gusty winds and low humidity could allow for “a significant spread of new and existing fires.”

Dense smoke has also made firefighting harder, grounding planes used to drop retardants meant to slow the fires.

“The air’s not good for doing anything right now,” Mark Bertuccelli, a pilot with the United States Forest Service told KFSN-TV in Fresno, Calif.

Yet California’s statewide fire agency, Cal Fire, said fire conditions have improved and there could be good news ahead as the air gets more humid.

Forecasters in the Weather Service’s Portland office were similarly optimistic, saying that rain could fall in parts of Oregon and Washington early next week and that the smoke could clear as air from over the ocean blows over the states.

Michelle Benthin, left, and Hermione Doshier fled the Oregon wildfires on Monday night.Credit...Jack Healy for The New York Times

JACK HEALY

Hermione Doshier could not stop thinking about the sound of exploding trees and the color of the sky as she fled the fire that devoured her home in the woods.

“The whole sky was red, red, red,” she said on Saturday morning, drying her hair in the hazy gray air of a fairground parking lot where she has been sleeping since Monday. “A wall of flames.”

This is now the routine for thousands of evacuees living out of their cars, campers and motel rooms: Assess the smoky air. Call the insurance company. Debate whether to try to go back and sift through the wreckage to see whether they still have a home.

And replay their harrowing flights from the Oregon wildfires.

Ms. Doshier, 67, moved up to the city of Gates six years ago to be closer to her older sister, Michelle Benthin, 68. Ms. Benthin’s house survived, one of the few in their community that did. All that was left of Ms. Doshier’s home was a wheelbarrow in which she had been growing yellow lilies.

The sisters recalled how they had escaped: On Monday night, hot easterly winds were lashing the trees and propelling fires across the mountains. Ms. Doshier said she had just a few minutes to flee after someone pounded on her door and shouted, “Get out.”

She grabbed her two dogs and Snickerdoodle, a cat, but four of her other cats, spooked by the alert to leave, died in the fire. Ms. Doshier could not find them in the dark as she tried to flee.

It had been a pretty day before then — blue skies — and her family had even ridden four-wheelers.

“Five hours later,” she said, “it’s gone.”

JACK NICAS

Since the fast-moving Almeda Fire chased most of the 4,500 residents of Phoenix from their homes on Tuesday and burned about a quarter of the city to the ground, a nearby Home Depot has become a sort of staging area for fire refugees trying to return home.

They began parking their cars here and trekking across a freeway overpass to make a sometimes miles-long hike to see whether their homes were still standing. On Thursday, teachers from the local school district set up a makeshift station to hand out bottles of water to people about to embark on the journey.

But as authorities began to block entry into town by Saturday, the volunteers’ effort had grown into a sort of free supermarket, with diapers, toilet paper, canned corn and peanut butter — all from local donations.

Midday Saturday, with the air opaque with smoke, Lori Fuller and Holly Tamplin, two teachers at Orchard Hill Elementary School, were helping to organize donations and volunteers, offering packed lunches and donated gift cards to displaced residents, and coordinating with the Home Depot, which had set up portable toilets and offered access to its sheds.

Louie and Patsy Alvarez, a married couple, both 75, showed up hoping to get into Phoenix to see their home and get some clothes, but they kept getting turned away.

“It’s my granddaughter’s birthday and her presents are on my couch,” Ms. Alvarez said. Instead, they picked up toilet paper and some produce.

Ms. Alvarez said they had been given less than five minutes to leave their home on Tuesday when the fire was sweeping in, and then watched flames nearly lick at their car while moving through traffic on the way out. “I thought we were toast,” she said. Their home had survived, but most of their neighbors’ residences did not.

Mr. Alvarez said he believed Phoenix would rebuild to return to what it once was. But his wife chimed in, “Not in our lifetime.”

Mike Baker

The wildfires on the West Coast have left the region blanketed in smoke, and winds on Saturday pushed the plumes from Oregon’s extensive blazes up through and across all of Washington State.

In Seattle, which recorded some of the worst air quality on the planet, the Space Needle was shrouded in the haze and Mayor Jenny Durkan closed the city’s parks and beaches. Local officials also opened a clean-air shelter for homeless people to help them get away from the smoke.

By Saturday afternoon, 28 people had gathered in the new shelter, some of whom went looking for cleaner air after feeling the effects of being outside, said Leo Flor, the director of the King County Department of Community and Human Services. He said outreach teams were also looking for others sleeping outside to offer them the shelter.

“The smoke is a really visible example of how it’s dangerous to be homeless,” Mr. Flor said. “But it’s always bad for your health to not have a home.”

The shelter, which is in a warehouse area south of downtown that once included a Tesla car dealership, had been acquired by the county as a potential coronavirus quarantine site. Mr. Flor said it was already laid out with coronavirus precautions, keeping people distanced and separated by vinyl sheeting.

Health officials warned that the smoke could aggravate heart and lung diseases along with other serious health problems. They said the pollutants could also cause burning eyes and runny noses.

The state issued air quality alerts until Monday at 11 a.m., hoping that changing weather would push some of the smoke away by then. The National Weather Service predicted rain showers by Monday night.

Oregon’s state fire marshal, Jim Walker, abruptly resigned from the job on Saturday as crews struggled to contain wildfires that have consumed more than one million acres across the state.

In a statement released by the Oregon State Police, officials said that Mr. Walker had offered his resignation and that Travis Hampton, the State Police superintendent, had accepted the offer.

The state announced that Mariana Ruiz-Temple, who has worked for the agency since 1995, was stepping into the role. Officials did not disclose the reason for Mr. Walker’s departure, which came hours after the state said he had been placed on administrative leave.

In Oregon, the state fire marshal is responsible for commanding the state fire service, advising the governor, and overseeing code enforcement and inspections.

A spokesman for the State Police said it was “conducting an internal personnel investigation” in conjunction with Mr. Walker. Mr. Hampton did not explain in a prepared statement why Mr. Walker was replaced.

“Mariana is assuming this position as Oregon is in an unprecedented crisis which demands an urgent response,” Mr. Hampton said. “This response and the circumstances necessitated a leadership change.”

Clyde Moorhouse remained at home on Thursday despite a mandatory evacuation order in Clackamas County, Ore.Credit...Kristina Barker for The New York Times

A deputy with the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office was placed on administrative leave, the agency said on Saturday, after the emergence of a video in which a uniformed official addressed rumors that people were purposefully adding to the destruction caused by wildfires.

Antifascists “are out causing hell,” the official said in the video, adding, “There’s a lot of lives at stake, and there’s a lot of people’s property at stake because these guys got some vendetta.”

The department called the deputy’s comments inappropriate, and Sheriff Craig Roberts said in a statement that he wanted to “apologize to all” in the community.

Widely discredited rumors claiming that left-wing activists had set fires spread on Facebook and Twitter this week, prompting some residents to delay evacuating, saying they wanted to protect their homes. The rumors played into some conservative residents’ fears and anger over months of protests in Portland, where left-wing and right-wing groups have occasionally clashed.

Authorities in southern Oregon charged a 41-year-old man on Friday with starting part of one of this year’s most destructive fires, saying he lit the fire as a larger blaze moved closer to the area. But the Ashland police chief told The Oregonian that no information pointed toward the loose collective of antifascist activists known as antifa.

After the Portland police issued a caution to protesters this week, tweeting, “We ask you to demonstrate peacefully and without the use of fire,” waves of rumors about arsonists and mayhem soon followed.

“We are inundated with questions about things that are FAKE stories,” the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Medford posted on Facebook. “One example is a story circulating that varies about what group is involved as to setting fires and arrests being made. THIS IS NOT TRUE!”

On Friday, sheriff’s deputies responded to reports of armed people stopping drivers and asking for identification in east Multnomah County, near Portland, Ore., the county sheriff, Michael Reese, said in a video statement.

The deputies told the people that the “roadways are open to all users” and that they could be cited or arrested, Sheriff Reese said.

“The sheriff’s office will not tolerate illegal activity of any kind, including civilian roadblocks,” he said. He urged residents to report suspicious activity and said his office had additional personnel ready to respond to calls.

Reporting was contributed by Davey Alba, Tim Arango, Mike Baker, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Maria Cramer, Kate Conger, Jill Cowan, Richard Fausset, Marie Fazio, Christopher Flavelle, Thomas Fuller, Jack Healy, Annie Karni, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Jack Nicas, Bryan Pietsch, John Schwartz, Will Wright and Alan Yuhas.