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Thousands evacuated as ‘once in a generation’ fires burn through Oregon

Fires across southwestern Oregon prompted evacuations and emergency responses throughout the state on Sept. 8. (Video: The Washington Post)

As wildfires stretching for thousands of acres ripped through southwestern Oregon late Tuesday, the state’s governor declared an emergency and tens of thousands of residents faced mandatory evacuation orders to escape the Almeda Fire, the latest blaze to devastate the region in recent days.

By early Wednesday, the fire was burning its way toward the central neighborhoods of Medford, Ore., a city of 82,000 people, where many have been forced to flee their homes.

“Pray for Medford,” tweeted resident Jeff Carpenter. “We are on fire tonight.”

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s emergency order for Jackson County, which includes Medford, came after the National Weather Service placed all of southwestern Oregon an under an extreme fire danger warning for the first time, according to the Oregon Climate Office. The Democratic governor had declared emergencies for three other blazes — the Beachie Creek, Lionshead, and Holiday Farm fires — earlier Tuesday.

Pointing to winds with 25 mph gusts as the catalyst for fueling the fires, the governor, in a news conference, described the weather contributing to the wildfires as “a once-in-a-generation event.”

“People’s homes, lives & land are at risk,” Brown tweeted. “If you are in an evacuation area, please pay close attention & listen to local calls to evacuate — this can save your life & the lives of our firefighters.”

Authorities haven’t released new information on structural damage or potential injuries in the area.

Much of the American West is on fire, illustrating the dangers of a climate of extremes

The Oregon Department of Forestry estimated the Almeda Fire has burned 2,500 to 3,000 acres. As of late Tuesday, the fire was at zero percent containment, according to Jackson County Emergency Management.

Also referred to as the Glendower Fire, the blaze started as a brush fire about 14 miles away around Ashland, Ore., before burning up Interstate 5 into Medford, noted Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA.

In a news release, the state fire marshal said firefighters and equipment had been mobilized to address the crisis in Medford, as well as in the nearby cities of Phoenix and Talent.

The fire is “threatening lives, structures and property in Jackson County,” the fire marshal wrote. “Currently, the state is seeing multiple fire starts. Strong winds and extremely dry conditions helped accelerate the growth of multiple new and existing fires in the last 24 hours statewide, impacting the Oregon fire service and state and federal wildland firefighting agencies throughout the state.”

In Medford, many residents and businesses are under a mandatory evacuation order from both the city and the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. While a temporary evacuation spot was established at the county expo center, shelter was not available, as emergency services preferred people leave the area altogether.

On social media, residents of Medford, Phoenix and Talent shared visuals of the massive fire. The crimson plumes of smoke covered the mountains that accentuate Medford, the heart of the Rogue Valley.