26 people have been killed and dozens more are missing as fires ravage the West Coast

6 days 11 hours 53 minutes ago Saturday, September 12 2020 Sep 12, 2020 Saturday, September 12, 2020 10:37:00 AM CDT September 12, 2020 in News
By: Jason Hanna and Christina Maxouris, CNN

(CNN) -- The West Coast's deadly wildfires have blanketed swaths of it with unhealthy smoke, complicating efforts to fight the blazes and find dozens of missing people, and compounding the misery of tens of thousands who've been displaced.

"You just never believe it's all going to go up in flames," Marian Telersky, who lost her home in the southern Oregon city of Talent, told CNN affiliate KOBI. "It's a lot to handle."

Fires have killed at least 26 people in the three contiguous West Coast states since mid-August, including 19 in California, many of them in the past few days.

Blazes this week have killed a 1-year-old boy in Washington, and six people in Oregon, including a teen who in his last moments huddled with his dog inside a car that was engulfed in flames.

About 100 large fires were burning Saturday in the US West overall, including 12 in Idaho and nine in Montana, the National Interagency Fire Center said. The fires have burned more than 4.5 million acres in 12 states.

Federal air quality monitors are warning that smoke is making for unhealthy air Saturday in most of California, Oregon and Washington and parts of Idaho -- and that smoke could make people more vulnerable to Covid-19, doctors say.

In California, three of the top five largest wildfires in the state's history are burning now, officials say. Little rain, high temperatures and strong winds helped set the stage for the flames and fuel them. And officials say it may take a long time for them to stop.

At least eight of Oregon's wildfires are expected to burn "until the winter's rains fall," Oregon Department of Forestry Fire Chief Doug Grafe said Friday.

Oregon prepares for 'mass fatality incident'

While Oregon's death toll was at least six on Saturday, the state is preparing for a "mass fatality incident" based on how many structures have been charred, Oregon Emergency Management Director Andrew Phelps said Friday.

Already, dozens are missing, the state's governor said, mostly across Jackson, Lane and Marion counties in western Oregon.

In Lyons, more than 60 miles south of Portland, the Beachie Creek Fire left neighborhoods in rubble and has scorched more than 186,000 acres.

"We had 29 houses on our block," Monica Garrison told CNN affiliate KATU. "We have 10 left."

The Beachie Creek Fire is the largest in the state and has no containment, officials say. Firefighters are racing to slow the blaze down before it merges with the nearby Riverside Fire, which has burned more than 130,000 acres.

About 500,000 people in Oregon are under some type of evacuation-preparation alert. Actual evacuation orders have been issued for more than 40,000, Gov. Kate Brown said.

'Never seen anything like this'

In California, firefighters are currently battling more than two dozen major fires across the state, but officials expressed hope Friday that improving weather conditions will boost firefighters' efforts to control the flames.

Fires in the state have burned more than 3.1 million acres so far, 26 times higher than what was burned by this time last year, according to Cal Fire. More than 3,900 structures have been destroyed this year, fire officials said.

In the Sierra Nevada range north of Sacramento, the North Complex Fire has torn through the Berry Creek community and Plumas National Forest since a lightning storm sparked it August 17, consuming more than 252,000 acres.

That fire has killed at least nine people, including a 16-year-old boy who was fleeing the area in his vehicle, Butte County authorities say. More than a dozen were missing, the sheriff's office said this week.

John Tripp, who evacuated his home in Butte County, says he has no idea what he'll find when he returns.

"I'm from Miami. I've been through hurricanes. I've been through tornadoes. I've never seen anything like this," he told CNN affiliate KCRA. "It's just hard not knowing if you have anything."

The blaze is burning just miles from Paradise, which was was devastated by the 2018 Camp Fire. People in part of that town were told to be ready to leave earlier in the week.

"California is in the midst of an existential climate crisis. It was just two years ago that this area saw the deadliest wildfire in our history. Now, just a few miles away, another deadly wildfire has ripped through these same communities," California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday. "There is no doubt -- climate change is here, and it is happening faster than most had anticipated."

80% of buildings in eastern Washington town destroyed

Meanwhile, the past five days in Washington have made for the state's second worst fire season in history, the governor said Friday. Sixteen major fires were burning in the state as of Friday.

"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires and we cannot and we will not surrender our state," Gov. Jay Inslee said.

"When I look in the eyes of people who lost their home and see their tears, I think these people deserve a response to try to protect them and to try to remove the threats."

Inslee visited a small town in eastern Washington earlier this week that was devastated by the fires. Eighty percent of Malden's buildings -- including the fire station, post office, city hall and library -- were completely destroyed.

"It looked like a bomb went off," officials said, according to CNN affiliate KIRO.

Elsewhere in Washington, a 1-year-old boy died and his parents were badly burned as they tried to escape the wildfire, officials said.

The family was visiting their property in a rural area west of Spokane and evacuated in the middle of the night when the wildfire got closer. They abandoned their vehicle and ran to a river to flee the menacing flames, CNN affiliate KCRA reported. The couple was rescued from the river but their son did not make it.

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