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 governor signs bill: Gives prisoners battling wildfires a shot at becoming pro firefighters
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.
But fire officials were hopeful that cooler weather over the next few days would give them a leg up in their battle against the blazes.
"As weather conditions continue to improve, firefighters are gaining ground on a number of wildfires, many of which have been burning now for over a month," Berlant said. "In northern California, that smoke layer will actually help us maintain some cooler temperatures."
President Donald Trump publicly addressed the fires for the first time Friday on Twitter, thanking the 28,000 firefighters and first responders battling the fires in California, Oregon and Washington. Trump said he has approved 37 Stafford Act Declarations, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate all disaster relief efforts.
The governors of California and Oregon each said they had spoken with the president this week. Trump was expected to travel to California on Monday, where he will be briefed by local and federal fire and emergency officials, the White House said Saturday.
Wind-driven fires were also burning in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. In Montana, which is experiencing a mild wildfire season, fires sparked amid 90-degree heat last week were met days later with an early fall snow storm that snapped a 58-year-old cold record in Great Falls.
At least seven weeks remain in the prime fire season. Fire officials cautioned residents to remain on their guard in the coming weeks as cooler temperatures set in.
"Don't let these cooler temperatures fool you," Berlant said. "Historically, it is September and October when we experience our largest and most damaging wildfires."
Map of wildfires
Did a gender reveal party start wildfires?
It has been a week since fire officials say a family used a pyrotechnic device during a gender reveal party that sparked the El Dorado Fire in California. The fire has burned more than 20 square miles in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, according to Cal Fire. Six structures have been damaged, 10 have been destroyed, and no one has been injured.
The family members, who tried to extinguish the blaze before dialing 911, are reportedly cooperating with authorities in their investigation. Nearly a week since the fire started, crews are continuing to protect structures in several communities.
"Those responsible for starting fires due to negligence or illegal activity can be held financially responsible and criminally responsible," Cal Fire officials stated in a press release on Sunday.
San Bernardino National Forest spokesperson Lee Beyer said fire crews are working in steep, rugged and sometimes heavily timbered terrain.
"They are working their butts off with what they have," Beyer said of the crews. "With the sheer number of fires on basically the whole West Coast, nobody is getting all the people and all the equipment they would like to have."
In Oregon, a man has been arrested and accused of lighting a fire in Phoenix, which sits between Ashland and Medford. State authorities are also investigating the start of the Almeda Fire, which has killed at least two people, destroyed about 600 homes and 100 commercial buildings, according to the State Fire Marshall's Office. Oregon officials have said the Almeda Fire was human-caused but have not said whether it was a product of arson.
Contributing: Megan Bridgeman, David Murray and Karl Puckett, Great Falls Tribune; Rebecca Plevin, Sherry Barkas and Mark Olalde, Palm Springs Desert Sun; Matt Brannon, The Redding Record Searchlight; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oregon, California fires: Mass fatalities expected; evacuations expand