The horrific western wildfire season is getting even worse. More than 85 wildfires are blazing across the West, but one of the most pressing is in southern Oregon, where much of the 82,000-person town of Medford is under evacuation order.
Late Tuesday, the state’s governor Kate Brown declared a state of emergency. Brown called for evacuations to escape the encroaching Almeda Fire, which as of Tuesday evening was uncontained and spreading up Interstate 5. In addition to Medford, residents in the surrounding towns were put on alert to evacuate at a moment’s notice or leave immediately. Footage shared on Facebook showed the fire raging through the town of Talent on Tuesday afternoon, located about 9 miles south of Medford. The Almeda Fire has now burned across 2,500 to 3,000 acres, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.
The fires have already destroyed communities. Footage posted on social media shows apartment complexes completely burned to the ground and other buildings scorched beyond repair.
At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Oregon Governor Kate Brown described the fire season as “unprecedented,” saying it could be the most severe wildfire season in the state’s history.
Brown was joined by the chief of fire protection for the Oregon Department of Forestry, Doug Graf, who said that no area in the state is currently safe from fire. Though he said firefighters are having some success containing fires east of the Cascade Mountains, new fires are still lighting up due to continued dry conditions and strong winds.
State officials expect conditions to improve by the weekend, when more humid air could calm the fires down. But until then, the state is in for continued terror.
“We expect to see a great deal of loss both in terms of structures and in terms of human life,” said Brown on Wednesday.
While the Almeda Fire is among the most dangerous, other large fires have spread over the state as part of historic extreme fire conditions. The largest fires in the state are the Beachie Creek fire, which has spread over 132,450 acres and is 0% contained, and the Lionshead Fire, which is blazing across 91,754 acres and is only 5% contained.
On Tuesday, Oregon fire officials told FOX12, Portland’s local Fox affiliate, that there have been many successful rescue missions, but could not say if anyone has died from the fires or how many people been hurt. Gov. Brown also told reporters on Tuesday that in some parts of the state, “the situation is so difficult and dangerous that even firefighters are being evacuated.”
The local Idanha-Detroit, Oregon volunteer fire department said conditions were too dangerous for its firefighters to carry out their mission in the area. Since Highway 22 was blocked on both ends by boulders and fallen trees, the agency called in the National Guard for an air evacuation, but were told a landing was not possible as high winds and heavy smoke.
“We were preparing to move people to the docks for a ‘last stand,’ but the Forest Service was able to find an evacuation route up to Government Camp using forest roads,” the agency said on Facebook. “We do not have any information on threatened or burned structures at this time. We apologize for not being able to have more accurate information. Our main focus was protecting the lives of our community members, campers, and firefighters.”
Smoke from the wildfires are also causing air quality to deteriorate. On Tuesday, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality issued an air quality advisory for the Portland metro area, Willamette Valley, Columbia River Gorge, which they extended into Wednesday. Eerie pictures like the one below posted to social media showed the Capitol in Salem under blood red skies in the middle of the day as thick smoke socked in the area, filtering sunlight.
Fires are also blazing in Washington, where they destroyed 80% of buildings in the town of Malden, and in California, where they’ve charred a record 2.2 million acres this year and show no signs of stopping. Bone dry conditions and a record-setting heat wave set the stage from extreme fire conditions. A bizarre weather setup to start the week has seen winds streaming downslope out of the Cascade Mountains, causing fires to blow up in the Pacific Northwest. The same is true in California, though the windy setup there is more common.
While summer wildfires are commonplace in the western U.S., the sheer terror unfolding right now is linked to the ever-worsening climate crisis. Oregon has gotten hotter and drier in recent years, creating tinderbox-like conditions for fires to catch. In a horrible feedback loop, wildfires also emit carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to the climate crisis. The only way to avoid even worse wildfires in future years is to curb our greenhouse gas pollution.
This is a developing story and will be updated.
Updated: 9/9/2020, 10:05 a.m. ET: This post has been updated with additional information from the Idanha-Detroit Rural Fire Protection District.
Updated: 9/9/2020, 3:45 p.m. ET: This post has been updated with additional information from Oregon state officials’ Wednesday afternoon press conference.