The West Coast Fires Are 'Apocalyptic,' And It's Going to Take Years to Recover

One Oregon official said the state is preparing for a "mass fatality event."
September 14, 2020, 2:07pm
AP Photo/Paula Bronstein

At least 31 people have been confirmed dead and hundreds of thousands have been evacuated after wildfires continued to ravage California, Oregon, and Washington this weekend, as one top Oregon official said on Friday said the state was preparing for a “mass fatality event.” 

Roughly 3,000 firefighting personnel from 27 states and Puerto Rico were fighting fires in Oregon and Washington as of this weekend, the Wall Street Journal reported. At least one crew of firefighters from Mexico is in Oregon helping to battle the blazes.

There are currently 29 major active wildfires in California, with more than 16,000 firefighters fighting fires that have burned more than 3 million acres statewide, CAL FIRE said Sunday. Washington state is battling at least 16 fires and Oregon is fighting another 13, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

It will likely take years for the West Coast to recover from the devastation. Tens of thousands of evacuees are sleeping in hundreds of shelters or in parking lots after escaping the blazes; some are even pitching tents on high school football fields, the New York Times reported over the weekend

In California, 20 people have died so far, according to CAL FIRE, with the still-ongoing North Complex fire already claiming 12 lives, making it the seventh-deadliest fire in state history. So far, that fire has burned more than 261,000 acres and is just 26% contained, according to CAL FIRE

Another 10 have died in Oregon and a 1-year old in Washington died last week, officials in those states have said. 

"There are going to be a number of fatalities, folks who just couldn't get warning in time and evacuate their homes and get to safety," Oregon state emergency management director Andrew Phelps told MSNBC Friday.

‘It is apocalyptic’

While cooler conditions in some areas helped firefighters make significant progress on Saturday, strong winds threatened to undo all of that work on Sunday. 

The fires have been fueled by the wind, extreme temperatures, and unusually dry conditions even in parts of the region that usually see a lot of rainfall. The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for parts of southern Oregon and northern California on Sunday, meaning that the areas were experiencing ‘critical fire conditions.”

“It is apocalyptic,” Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley told ABC News on Sunday. “I drove 600 miles up and down the state, and I never escaped the smoke. We have thousands of people who have lost their homes. I could have never envisioned this.”

“There’s just so much fire,” National Weather Service fire weather meteorologist Ryan Walbrun told the New York Times. “And so much smoke.”

While some rain is expected to come to the northern part of the region this week beginning Monday, wind conditions could exacerbate the problems further South into California and the surrounding region. 

Armed checkpoints in Oregon

In Oregon, residents of some towns have set up armed checkpoints as disinformation continued to spread on social media that some fires were lit deliberately and that antifa was responsible. The Multnomah County Sheriff’s office said late Friday that some people had set up checkpoints and were stopping cars in the town of Corbett, about 25 miles east of Portland, and pleaded with residents not to do this. 

In a video posted the following day, Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese said deputies had responded to reports that "some people were armed and asking for identification of the folks they were stopping." 

"The Sheriff's Office will not tolerate illegal activity of any kind, including civilian roadblocks," he added. 

In Clackamas County, a viral video showed a sheriff’s deputy spreading rumors that antifa were setting fires. “Antifa motherfuckers are out causing hell, and there’s a lot of lives at stake,” the deputy said in the video. “And there’s a lot of people’s property at stake because these guys got some vendetta.”

The deputy, who hasn’t been publicly named, has since been placed on administrative leave. “As soon as I was made aware of this incident, I moved swiftly to place this deputy on leave while we investigate,” Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts said in a statement.

On Friday, the FBI’s Portland office issued a statement attempting to debunk the rumors about “extremists” setting fires in Oregon. 

“Conspiracy theories and misinformation take valuable resources away [from] local fire and police agencies working around the clock to bring these fires under control," the agency said in a tweet. "Please help our entire community by only sharing validated information from official sources."

Trump visits California Monday

President Donald Trump said during a rally in Nevada on Saturday night that he would visit California on Monday. He repeatedly blamed the fires on poor forest management in the states, all three of which are heavily Democratic and all but certain to go for former Vice President Joe Biden in November.

“Spoke to the folks in Oregon, Washington, they never had anything like this, but it is about forest management,” Trump said. “Please remember the words, very simple, forest management, please remember. It’s about forest management and other things, but forest management.” (On Sunday, Merkley called that a “big, devastating lie.”) 

“They are fighting and it’s dangerous, it’s dangerous. It’s rapidly spreading, hundreds of thousands of acres, it’s not been anything quite like this one,” Trump added.

Missing in Trump’s explanation of why these unprecedented fires were happening as any mention of climate change. The Trump administration has aggressively rolled back the Obama administration’s environmental and climate protections, to the point where even corporations such as Exxonone of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world—have opposed some of the rollbacks.

“As an historic figure, he is one of the most culpable men in America contributing to the suffering and death that is now occurring through climate-related tragedy,” former California governor Jerry Brown told the New York Times on Sunday.

“Talk to a firefighter if you think that climate change isn’t real,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told CNN on Sunday. “It seems like this administration are the last vestiges of the Flat Earth Society of this generation.”

Cover: Jackson County District 5 firefighter Captain Aaron Bustard works on a smoldering fire in a burned neighborhood as destructive wildfires devastate the region on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in Talent, Ore. (AP Photo/Paula Bronstein)