SALEM, Ore. — Winds gusting to 50 mph fanned dozens of catastrophic wildfires Wednesday across a large swath of Washington state and Oregon that rarely experiences such intense fire activity because of the Pacific Northwest’s cool and wet climate. Oregon’s governor said hundreds of homes had been destroyed.
Firefighters were struggling to try to contain and douse the blazes and officials in some places were giving residents just minutes to evacuate their homes. The fires trapped firefighters and civilians behind fire lines in Oregon and leveled an entire small town in eastern Washington.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown warned that the devastation could be overwhelming from the fires that exploded Monday during a late-summer wind storm that included gusts of 75 mph.
“This could be the greatest loss of human life and property due to wildfire in our state’s history,” Brown told reporters.
No fatalities from the region’s fires had been confirmed by Wednesday afternoon, but Brown said some communities were substantially, with “hundreds of homes lost.”
The scenes were similar to California’s terrifying wildfire drama, where residents have fled fires raging unchecked throughout the state.
But Pacific Northwest officials said they did not recall so many destructive fires at once in the areas where they were burning.
Sheriff’s deputies, traveling with chain saws in their patrol cars to cut fallen trees blocking roads, went door to door in rural communities 40 miles (64 kilometers) south of Portland, telling people to evacuate. Since Tuesday, as many as 16,000 people have been told to abandon their homes.
“These winds are so incredible and are spreading so fast, we don’t have a lot of time,” said Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts.
Fires were burning in seven Oregon counties and rural and suburban homes miles away from Portland, Oregon’s largest city, were under preliminary orders to prepare for possible evacuations. Three prisons were evacuated late Tuesday and Brown called the state’s blazes unprecedented.
The Pacific Northwest is no stranger to wildfires, but most of the biggest ones until now have been in the eastern or southern parts of the region — where the weather is considerably hotter and drier and the vegetation more fire-prone than it is in the region’s western portion.
Fires in 2017 and 2018 crested the top of the Cascade Mountains — the long spine that divides dry eastern Oregon from the lush western part of the state — but never before spread into the valleys below, said Doug Grafe, chief of Fire Protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry.
“We do not have a context for this amount of fire on the landscape,” he said. “Seeing them run down the canyons the way they have — carrying tens of miles in one period of an afternoon and not slowing down in the evening – (there is) absolutely no context for that in this environment.”
Fire crews were focusing on trying to keep people out of harm’s way and preventing houses from burning on Wednesday, with officials saying that containing the fires was a secondary priority. There was concern that fires south of Portland could merge and become a much larger inferno that would be more difficult for firefighters to handle.
“We’re really at the mercy of the weather right now,” said Clackamas Fire District Chief Fred Charlton.
In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee said more than 330,000 acres (133,546 hectares) burned during a 24-hour period — an area larger than the acreage that normally burns during entire fire seasons that lasts from spring into the fall.
About 80% of the small eastern Washington farming town of Malden was leveled by flames from a fast-moving fire on Monday. Among the buildings that burned were the town’s fire station, post office, City Hall and library.
“It’s an unprecedented and heart-breaking event,” Inslee told reporters.
He blamed hot weather, high winds and low humidity for the explosive growth of the fires.
In Oregon, at least four major fires were burning in Clackamas County, a suburban county in Oregon that’s a bedroom community of Portland. The entire county of nearly 420,000 people was put on notice to be ready to evacuate late Tuesday amid winds gusting up to 30 mph (48kph).
Another major fire in southern Oregon prompted evacuation orders in much of Medford, a city of about 80,000 residents.
And several huge blazes burning in Marion County, southeast of the state’s capitol city of Salem, merged overnight — turning the sky blood red in the middle of the day. Thousands of people were braced to flee if evacuation orders emerged.
“It was pitch black dark out there — all you could see was red,” said Wendy Phelps-Chapman, activity director at the Marian Estates independent senior living center in Sublimity, Oregon, which evacuated its 160 residents on Tuesday.
Some school districts that had just begun distance learning canceled classes due to power outages or the threat of imminent evacuations or issued warnings Wednesday that classes might be canceled if fires spread closer.
Wind storms downed power lines and tens of thousands of people lost power in the northwestern Oregon and southwestern Washington.
In Monday, 70 people were hemmed in by fire along with firefighters near the small city of Detroit, Oregon, the Idanha-Detroit Fire District said in a Facebook post.
An evacuation by helicopter was requested but the smoke was too thick for that kind of rescue operation, so they eventually escaped on dirt roads used by the U.S. Forest Service.