As wildfires began consuming communities across Oregon this week, leaders at the state emergency management office fired off an email to counterparts around the country, pleading for 10 firefighting strike teams that could bring 50 extra engines to the region.
The state got one commitment: Utah would send a team with five engines.
Facing a historic year of wildfire destruction across the West Coast, including more than three million acres consumed in California, the national emergency systems that rely on state-to-state assistance have been buckling under the strain. That has left emergency responders struggling to keep pace with fires that have destroyed entire towns and led to at least 15 deaths, with seven more people found dead on Thursday from a fire north of Sacramento.
“I don’t know that we have any fires where we can say we have got enough resources to do what we need to do,” Andrew Phelps, the director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, said.
Fires continued to rage in southern Oregon, where hundreds of homes have been razed, as well as east of Salem, where two bodies have been found, and along the state’s coast. More than 900,000 acres have burned, nearly double a typical season. Hundreds of thousands of people have been ordered to evacuate, including parts of the Portland suburbs, where fires were still on the move.
In California, firefighters continued to battle the blazes of a remarkable wildfire season, including the August Complex burning in the Mendocino National Forest that is now the largest fire in the state’s recorded history.
In Washington, hundreds of homes and other structures were at risk of wildfires that continued to burn, even as a deadly stretch of dry winds from the East began to ease. Hilary Franz, the state’s commissioner of public lands, said the state was searching for help from elsewhere in the country.
“California, Oregon, Washington, we are all in the same soup of cataclysmic fire,” said Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee.
The dead so far include 10 people who died in a fast-moving fire in California’s Butte County; a 1-year-old boy who was killed in the Cold Springs Fire in northern Washington; two people who were discovered in a vehicle east of Salem, Ore.; and two people who died in one of the region’s most destructive fires, the Almeda Fire in southern Oregon.
Three law enforcement agencies in Oregon, including the Ashland Police Department and the State Police, said they had opened an arson investigation for the Almeda Fire, which destroyed roughly 600 homes in the towns of Talent and Phoenix and was still raging out of control on Thursday.
To the south and east of Portland, the fire threat continued to creep into the city’s suburbs as smoke blanketed the region. In the city of Molalla, about 30 miles south of Portland, cars were packing the highways out of town in the hours after cellphone alerts blared with evacuation orders.
People were hauling boats, campers, antique cars and horse trailers. The air was choked with a yellow haze that formed thick clouds over farm fields.
Doug Franzke, a pastor from nearby Canby, drove over to the Molalla area after evacuating his aunt from her house in a rural part of Clackamas County. He brought a trailer filled with water, food and chain saws to donate.ImageThe town of Berry Creek, Calif., was destroyed by wildfires.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times
As ash rained down, he said that conditions on the ground were deteriorating markedly Thursday afternoon as two fires converged. “Everything went crazy,” he said. “All heck broke loose.”
His aunt’s son, Cody Peterson, posted on Facebook that he was ragged and had been trying to save his family’s home for days with few reinforcements and no end in sight. “I’m too tired to keep going,” he wrote. “I haven’t eaten one meal in 60 hours.”
Firefighters, some with black smudges across their faces, streamed into the fire station in downtown Molalla, then hopped into their cars and themselves began to evacuate.
“We’re falling back,” one said as he headed out of town.
Vern Sides, 71, a former firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service, watched them go from the parking area of the Ace Hardware where he works, and where he was now planning to spend the next few days camping in his blue Ford truck. He lives in the woods and was betting that his home was going to be destroyed. He choked up as he watched the fire station across the street empty out.
“They don’t have enough manpower,” he said. “They don’t have enough air support. These guys are coming in exhausted. They’re spent. They don’t have anything more to give, but they go out.”
Elsewhere in the state, crews were still fighting fires and sorting through the devastation from flames that had already passed. In Phoenix, Ore., aerial images showed whole neighborhoods razed to the ground. In areas east of Salem, the state capital, officials warned that more bodies could be discovered as they sifted through the devastation.
Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon said it could be days or weeks before officials had a full understanding of the impacts from the fires.
In addition to the request for fire engines, Mr. Phelps said the state would also be seeking help from other states for search-and-rescue crews, emergency operations support personnel and crews equipped to detect human remains. Ms. Brown said her office put in a request to the Defense Department for a battalion of active-duty military trained in firefighting.
So many state aid requests have gone to the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group, which helps direct wildfire resources, that the group has been left to decide which ones get priority. Dan Smith, a member of the group who is also fire director for the National Association of State Foresters, said that as of Thursday morning there were over 300 requests for support that could not be fulfilled.
Mr. Smith said crews around the country had about 26,000 personnel working on large fires, along with others who were working on smaller fires or positioned to respond quickly to new fires.ImageSmoke from the Bear Fire lingered over Lake Oroville on Wednesday.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times
“We’re pretty much at full commitment nationally,” Mr. Smith said.
He said fire crews have been through tremendous strain. Last month, when thousands of dry lightning strikes sparked some of the first wildfires in Northern California, firefighters from Oregon and Washington rushed to help. But as fires began to spread in their own states, they have pulled back and left California to turn to other states, and even other countries.
“We are over what we have ever experienced in any other season and it’s only the beginning of September,” said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for California’s Office of Emergency Services.
California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, has put out personal requests for aid across the country. He has spoken with the Canadian prime minister about more help, and Israel recently sent 10 firefighters to California. As temperatures have dropped in Utah and Colorado, those states have sent firefighters to California, essentially replacing the ones from Oregon and Washington. Fire engines from Idaho, New Mexico and Texas are in California, with more on the way.
The state has more than 14,000 firefighters deployed to more than two dozen wildfires, with some of them moving from one fire to another. Santa Barbara County, for instance, had several fire crews deployed to Northern California, then to Los Angeles County in the south, and then back north again.
“They were gone for three weeks, to fire after fire after fire,” said Mike Eliason, the public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. “They’ve pretty much made a loop.”
With the scale of the recent wildfire seasons, he said, “it’s becoming sad that every year we’re having this conversation. We say this is the biggest year, and then the next year say this is the biggest year. It’s becoming numbing how frequently we have to say this.”