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Wildfires latest: helpful weather; Oregon official warns of ‘mass fatality incident’

  • By Jason Slotkin/NPR
Firefighters monitor a controlled burn along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to help contain the Dolan Fire near Big Sur, Calif., Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Nic Coury)

Firefighters monitor a controlled burn along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to help contain the Dolan Fire near Big Sur, Calif., Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Nic Coury)

Updated at 12:06 a.m. ET on Sunday

Fire crews battling blazes across the western United States are hoping a change in conditions, including increased humidity and cooler temperatures, will aid them in containment efforts.

Some 29,000 personnel are working to stop 97 large fires that have burned some 4.7 million acres across several states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. About 40 of those fires have prompted evacuation orders in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Idaho and Utah.

The White House said Saturday that President Trump will visit McClellan Park, Calif., on Monday to be briefed on fires by local and federal officials.

Fires have killed at least 28 people since mid-August, though authorities worry about more who are unaccounted for. In Oregon, an official with the state’s department of a emergency management is warning of a “mass fatality incident.”

Democratic governors in California and Washington are speaking out about climate change, as the record-breaking fire season scorches parts of their states.

Meanwhile, law enforcement and public officials are contending with online conspiracy theories about the origins of at least some of the blazes.

A man stops on his bike along the Willamette River as smoke from wildfires partially obscures the Tilikum Crossing Bridge on Saturday in Portland.

John Locher/AP

“Mass fatality incident” and hopes for a break in conditions

The director of Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management, Andrew Phelps, warned of a “mass fatality incident” as fires there continue after having burned more than 1 million acres.

Half a million Oregonians are under some kind of evacuation notice while about 40,000 have already fled.

By Saturday evening, at least eight people had died as a result of wildfires in Oregon. Gov. Kate Brown said dozens were missing during a virtual news conference a day earlier.

Fire officials in Oregon expressed optimism that a change in conditions is enabling progress by the 3,000 fire personnel in the state.

“Cooler temperatures, along with moisture in the air, helped the firefighters put us in a position to move from just life safety to the offense against these fires,” said Department of Forestry Chief of Fire Protection Doug Grafe during the press conference.

Grafe went on to say that conditions are expected to push through the weekend.

“This is positive firefighting weather for three days. It’ll continue to next week with more favorable conditions,” Grafe added.

Changing weather conditions are expected to also improve air quality, which Brown noted is the “worst in the world” because of the fires.

On Friday, the National Weather Service in Portland tweeted that marine air with a “modest westerly breeze” was expected to improve air quality in both Oregon and Washington.

California, Oregon and Washington have all been dealing with poor air quality because of the fires.

In California, Cal Fire said improved weather conditions had helped some containment efforts, though other parts of the state haven’t seen much relief from the weather conditions that have driven fires.

“While weather conditions have improved compared to last weekend, warm and dry conditions persist through much of the state, although onshore flow early next week should help with humidity level,” Cal Fire said in its daily wildfire update.

But the agency also warned that “critical fire weather” could soon return.

“Red Flag conditions are in effect in the very northern part of California on Sunday, bringing gusty winds and low humidity to the Modoc National Forest and the Tulelake Basin,” the agency went on to say.

Governors talk climate change

California Gov. Gavin Newsom surveyed damage from the North Complex Fire in the state’s Oroville State Recreation Area on Friday.

The North Complex Fire has burned more than 252,000 acres in three of the state’s northern counties. Statewide, Cal Fire said, 28 major wildfires have devastated 3.2 million acres. At least 22 people have died since Aug. 15, with over 4,000 structures destroyed.

Capital Public Radio noted that six of the state’s 20 largest fires have burned this year, including the August Complex Fire in the Mendocino and Humboldt counties. That fire, the second largest in recorded state history, has already consumed more than 875,000 acres.

During his visit on Friday, Newsom vowed to accelerate efforts to fight climate change. Newsom called the fires a “climate damn emergency.”

“The debate is over around climate change. Just come to the state of California. Observe it with your own eyes,” Newsom said.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee made his own call to action on climate. Noting that, as of Friday, more than 626,000 acres burned in his state, Inslee labeled this season’s blazes “climate fires.”

“Right now, we have a state that is just a tinderbox. And the reason is, is because of the low humidity, the high temperatures and obviously the winds, and these are conditions that are becoming much more frequent in our state. That’s why we had three of the last five years some of the worst fires in our state’s history,” Inslee said.

Also on Friday, Newsom signed a bill to allow inmate firefighters to have their records expunged.

A burned residence is seen as destructive wildfires devastate the region on Friday in Talent, Ore.

Paula Bronstein/AP

Authorities battle conspiracy theory narrative

Alongside efforts to contain the blazes, authorities in the Pacific Northwest have been battling the spread of misinformation.

Postings to Facebook and other social media sites have been spreading rumors of looting and even blaming left-wing activists for starting the blaze.

In Oregon, where right-wing and left-wing activists clashed in Portland, conspiracy theories have blamed antifa — anti-fascist protesters — with starting fires.

Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that in rural parts of the state, vigilante groups have organized to drive off rumored threats. One of the station’s reporters was recently stopped by such a group in Clackamas County and told to leave.

Law enforcement organizations have been working to quash the rumors.

In Douglas County, the sheriff’s office shot down rumors that it had arrested several antifa members, calling the conflagration of misinformation a drain on resources.

“Rumors spread just like wildfire and now our 9-1-1 dispatchers and professional staff are being overrun with requests for information and inquiries on an UNTRUE rumor that 6 Antifa members have been arrested for setting fires in DOUGLAS COUNTY, OREGON,” the Sheriff’s office posted to its Facebook page this week.

Similar rumors spread in Jackson County, where officials opened an investigation into the Almeda fire.

“In no way does it point towards any political group, including anybody associated with antifa. Any rumors suggesting that it is pointed toward antifa are entirely fabricated,” said Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara.

The FBI field office in Portland says it has investigated such rumors are found them untrue.

“Conspiracy theories and misinformation take valuable resources away [from] local fire and police agencies working around the clock to bring these fires under control,” the field office said in a statement on Friday.

Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Ryan Haas and Conrad Wilson contributed to this report.

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