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Dozens of wildfires in Oregon have forced the evacuation of more than 500,000 residents, prompting Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler to declare a state of emergency Friday as two massive blazes converged at the doorstep to his city.
While scores of wildfires have erupted over the past weeks in Oregon, two of the largest, the Beachie Creek and Riverside fires, appeared about to merge, forcing the evacuation of portions of Clackamas and Marion counties. Those two counties, which neighbor Portland to the south, have a combined population of nearly 1.4 million.
“We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across our state,” Gov. Kate Brown said at a press conference Friday.
So far, over 306,000 acres have burned in Oregon this year, which has also seen record fire damage in Washington and California.
The scale of the devastation in Oregon is staggering, displacing 1 out of every 10 residents in the state and so far taking the lives of at least 15 people.
“It’s incredibly smoky in Bend,” local resident Michael Omar told Yahoo News. “Approximately 500,000 people [are] evacuating on the other side of the [Cascade] Mountains. It’s like a smoky fog — you can see down the street, but the light is a dim orange.”
As in neighboring states, the massive amounts of smoke produced by the fires mean that even those residents spared the need to evacuate are suffering from an unhealthy air quality in which toxic ash and smoke coat outdoor surfaces.
Portland’s air quality deteriorated over the past day, making it less safe to breathe than in any other city on the planet. Similar conditions prevailed in much of Northern California and as far south as San Francisco. Thanks to approximately 30 large wildfires in Washington, an orange-gray haze has also extended north to Seattle and covers much of the state’s pristine wilderness. The National Weather Service said Friday that air quality would continue to worsen throughout the day in western Washington.
The fires have wreaked destruction on everything in their path.
“Well, a home where I used to live in Phoenix [Ore.] burned, and campgrounds I stayed at on Detroit Lake [also in Oregon] this summer burned,” Portland resident Bill Redden, a retired public defender, told Yahoo News. “If there’s a take on that, it’s that Oregon is still a small enough state that most everyone has some sort of personal connection to the destruction.”
Jason Houk, a radio DJ on KSKQ in Ashland, said roughly 800 homes were destroyed in the town on Tuesday when a wall of flames from the Almeda Fire tore through Ashland, Talent and Phoenix.
With scarcely enough time to grab their passports, Houk, his wife and their two daughters evacuated, but their mobile home was destroyed along with 80 others in the complex where they lived. Returning to view the devastation, Houk said the mobile home park now "looks like the pictures of Hiroshima. Utter devastation.”
“Anything that could burn burned, any metal was twisted, any aluminum melted, any brick shattered, anything once green is black,” Houk told Yahoo News.
Millions of acres have burned across the West this year, and experts point to climate change as a contributing factor in the unfolding disaster. Across 11 Western states, including Oregon, Washington and California, approximately 87 percent of the landscape is abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Even more startling, much of the normally rain-soaked states of Oregon and Washington — where wildfires have erupted this week — is suffering severe drought.
The frequency of wildfires in California has been directly linked to rising temperatures, which turn dangerous underbrush and dead trees into ready kindling. This year, more than twice the yearly amount of land has burned in Oregon, and California is setting its own records.
For those who live in the West, the speed with which the fires can transform reality has proved especially disconcerting.
“We had a clear and smoke-free summer until this week,” Christian Nielsen, a lab scientist in Portland, told Yahoo News. “We went from the mildest fire summer in five years to the worst in a few days. Crazy.”
Perhaps the only silver lining about the wildfires is that the nightly clashes between police and protesters in Portland have taken a pause.
“I haven’t heard a word in the last two or three days about any nighttime protests. I think that’s due to the air quality,” Portland resident Angie Jabine said. “If I were a protester, I’d want any excuse to take a few nights off!”
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