In the past 48 hours, three people died from a lightning-sparked fire in northern California, while three were reported dead in Oregon and a 1-year-old boy died in Washington state, police reported.
Oregon bore the brunt of nearly 100 major wildfires ripping across the western states, with around 3,000 firefighters battling over two dozen wildfires.
The blazes tore through at least five communities in Oregon’s Cascade mountain range as well as areas of coastal rainforest normally spared from wildfires.
East of Salem, Oregon, search and rescue teams entered destroyed communities like Detroit, where firefighters abandoned equipment and led residents on a dramatic mountain escape after military helicopters were unable to evacuate the town.
A 12-year-old boy was found dead with his dog inside a burned car and his grandmother was believed to be dead after flames engulfed an area near Lyons, Oregon, about 50 miles (80 km) south of Portland, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office said.
A Reuters photographer saw small communities including Bear Lake Estates reduced to ashes as he drove south on Interstate 5 towards Ashland.
Some people counted their blessings after fleeing the Bear Creek trailer park, where nearly every home burned.
“Thank God we were at home,” said Julio Flores, a resident of the community who escaped with two children who would have been alone had his restaurant working hours not been cut due to the coronavirus pandemic.
To the south, a fire was suspected of causing at least one death outside of Ashland, said Rich Tyler, spokesman for the Oregon State Fire Marshal.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown said the state was facing perhaps its greatest ever loss in lives from wildfires, with the communities of Blue River and Vida in Lane County and Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon largely destroyed.
Climate scientists say global warming has contributed to greater extremes in wet and dry seasons across the U.S. West, causing vegetation to flourish then dry out, leaving more abundant, volatile fuel for fires.
Evacuations were occurring in areas scattered across all of Oregon, an area around the size of the United Kingdom, as fires burned in virtually every region.
In southern Oregon’s Jackson County, most of the city of Medford, with 82,000 residents, was told to evacuate or prepare to evacuate as fires burned around the city.
Residents in Shady Cove, about 20 miles (32 km) north of Medford, drove around trying to work out where the fires were and whether to evacuate homes, according to a Reuters photographer.
To the north, thick smoke reduced visibility to half a mile in Aurora and about three quarters of a mile in Salem. It was later expected to blow into the Portland metro area, the National Weather Service reported.