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In Oregon, deadly wildfires leave behind devastation and agonizing uncertainty

Dozens of people are missing as ‘unprecedented’ wildfires sweep the West.

An estimated 500,000 people in the state are now threatened by the wildfires, which have engulfed over a million acres. (Video: The Washington Post)

SALEM, Ore. — The fires burning across the American West are tearing through communities without respite, consuming homes and businesses and sending tens of thousands fleeing for their lives with no end in sight.

Oregon authorities and experts described the wildfires as unprecedented, leaving a painful trail of destruction across a wide swath of the state. Officials had linked the fires to at least nine deaths Saturday, a toll that could rise. In California, more than 3 million acres have burned in historic blazes now connected to at least 22 deaths. In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) on Saturday urged residents to keep their doors and windows closed as smoke clogged the air.

Adding to the misery is the agony faced by those who have fled the life-threatening fires and are now waiting to find out whether their friends and loved ones survived the destruction.

Cynthia Schmidt Jones hasn’t slept in four nights, not since she fled her home in Talent, Ore., before “the fire ripped through like a tornado.”

She hasn’t slept, she said, since she last heard from someone who saw her brother, Donald.

Donald lived in a mobile home in Phoenix, a neighboring city. His wife left at the first sign of danger on Tuesday, before the evacuation order. Their roommate followed suit, leaving when black smoke filled the air and urging Donald to come along. But Donald refused, staying behind to keep watch with his dog, Roxy. Some of his neighbors had also stayed in their homes, and the U.S. Army veteran didn’t want to leave them alone. “Donald was not one to leave any of them behind,” Schmidt Jones said.

That night, Schmidt Jones’s sister-in-law called to tell her that Donald was missing. And their mobile home community, along with hundreds of other homes and businesses across Talent and Phoenix, had been destroyed by the Almeda Fire.

By the weekend, the family still hadn’t found Donald, making him one of the dozens missing among the devastation. Schmidt Jones posted her brother’s photo on Facebook constantly, hoping someone might have seen him. She wondered whether he may have found a ride out of the neighborhood and was now lost. The 55-year-old had a stroke about a year ago, she said, and had a brain tumor removed two years earlier.

She was holding out hope, she said Saturday morning, but was also aware of the odds. “It’s been too long,” she said. “Too many people are looking for him. Somebody would’ve seen him by now.”

A few hours later she got the awful news — her brother had died in the fire.

On Saturday afternoon, sheriff’s deputies arrived at her home and told her they had found her brother’s remains in the flooring of his mobile home. “I begged them not to tell me he burned to death,” she said. His German Shepherd, Roxy, was found on top of him, she said.

“She was protecting him,” Schmidt Jones said.

As the Golden State burns, the California Dream has become the California Compromise

When the fires closed in on Gates, Ore., last week, Ellen Flores fled the RV camp where she lives, driving about an hour west to the Oregon state fairgrounds in Salem.

Flores said the RV camp was still full when she left shortly before the fire arrived, and she still doesn’t know what is left behind. Residents are blocked from returning, but in videos and photos she saw, it looks like very little is left of her camp. She has been struggling to reach neighbors, wondering if they made it out in time.

“I try to call people, and nobody answers their phone,” said Flores, 45. “I don’t know if they made it out.”

Flores was packing up supplies in Salem to go help evacuate her father, who uses a wheelchair and an oxygen tank. He isn’t under an evacuation order, but she fears the oxygen tank could explode if things heat up where he is.

“If I sit down for too long by myself, I’m going to start freaking out,” Flores said while carrying bags of supplies.

Oregon officials have signaled that the toll could rise. Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, said Friday that officials were preparing for “a mass fatality incident based on what we know and the number of structures that have been lost.”

Authorities also said the search-and-rescue efforts have been stymied by the still-dangerous conditions.

In Lane County, where fire officials on Friday discovered a person’s remains in the Holiday Farm Fire’s perimeter, the sheriff’s office said an 80-person search-and-rescue team is coming in to assist an existing team of more than 200.

In an abrupt shift announced Saturday, one official involved in the response — Jim Walker, the state’s fire marshal — was put on administrative leave and then resigned. His leave was announced by the Oregon State Police with little explanation.

Authorities are just starting to look for the dead as some areas grow safer to enter, said Carrie Carver, a spokeswoman for the Lane County Sheriff’s Office.

“It will be largely dependent upon fire behavior,” Carver said Saturday afternoon, noting that the person found dead Friday was in a “very hot area” and discovered by fire officials, not recovery teams.

Fire officials and staff from the sheriff’s office were still working to do welfare checks on people reported missing. That number topped 50 on Saturday, but it was constantly changing, Carver said.

Determining precisely who is missing will also take time, officials said, because many people evacuated quickly, and some may lack cellphones or may be in areas without service.

Even amid the ongoing anguish, authorities reported signs of progress Saturday, noting that the gusting winds had eased.

“Our firefighters in Oregon are feeling more optimistic as the weather has calmed in the last couple of days,” said Jim Gersbach, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

“It doesn’t mean they’re not capable of spreading, and some of them still are,” Gersbach said of the fires. “But the ferocity we saw with 30-mph-plus winds, that’s fortunately behind us. So what we’re able to do now is get in, get firefighters in, because it’s safer.”

The scale of the situation in Oregon and the rest of the West, and the fire dynamics playing out across the region, is “extraordinary,” said Erica Fleishman, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute and a professor at Oregon State University.

Three factors are feeding into the dire situation, Fleishman said: long-term climate change, the weather seen right before the fires and changing patterns of where people are living in the West.

“Everything that I’m hearing and reading suggests that the numbers of fires, the sizes of fires and the extreme behavior of the fires is unprecedented,” Fleishman said.

“Certainly the fact that there are fires in the West and the fact there can be sometimes very large fires in the West is not unprecedented,” she said. “But how many of them, the back-to-back years that are associated with the largest fires in the history of a given state, these fires that are creating their own weather, . . . it’s an extreme of fire that’s unusual.”

Even areas where the fires are not burning have been impacted, with waves of smoke stretching for miles. The National Weather Service on Saturday released a forecast showing a heavy, choking cloud of smoke cloaking much of the Pacific Northwest. The Weather Service also issued an advisory for parts of Oregon and Washington state, warning of dense smoke and “unhealthy air quality” expected to stretch through Monday.

California’s wildfire smoke plumes are unlike anything previously seen

Lane County, Ore., on Saturday said it had opened “smoke respite shelters.” In Clackamas County, Ore., officials said they were struggling to even identify where the fires were burning amid all the smoke.

Authorities confronting the fires have also had to contend with misinformation spreading online, seeking to link the fires to extremists and other groups.

On Saturday, Facebook announced that it was taking down “false claims that the wildfires in Oregon were started by certain groups” after law enforcement officials said “these rumors are forcing local fire and police agencies to divert resources from fighting the fires and protecting the public.”

The FBI’s field office in Portland a day earlier had released a statement saying that authorities investigated the reports, found them to be untrue and warned that “conspiracy theories and misinformation take valuable resources away [from] local fire and police agencies” responding to the fires.

In at least one case, one of these theories was seemingly shared by a member of law enforcement. In a video posted on Friday, a person in a sheriff’s office uniform is heard referring to supporters of the loose, far-left “antifa” movement and said they were causing issues, adding that there were “a lot of lives at stake . . . ’cause these guys got some vendetta.”

The Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office said Saturday that it had placed a deputy on leave while his comments were investigated. Sheriff Craig Roberts said in a statement that his office sought “to provide calm and safety, especially during unprecedented times such as these,” and apologized to the community.

Western wildfires: Blazes fueled by climate change engulf vast region in crisis

Lydia Bashaw said she knew about the rumors swarming online. Fearful of crime, some people have taken matters into their own hands, she said: A friend of hers encountered a group of locals seeking to prevent looting who were stopping people on the road and asking questions.

“For some people, it’s a little scary that they’re standing on the streets with their guns,” said Bashaw, 32. “I think that people are just so afraid that they think that they can basically pretend to be John Wayne and stop anything bad from happening.”

Bashaw spent most of her life in a rural part of Estacada, a community of few thousand that’s less than an hour’s drive southwest of Portland, never fearing serious wildfires. This past week, she says, the flames took her childhood home.

“It feels like part of my memories are gone with it,” she said.

Others were still trying to take stock of what they had lost. On Monday, Lori Fowler, who helps manage an RV campsite near Mill City, banged on the doors of 21 campers to tell people to evacuate.

They all got out, but it was too late for her to get her RV, said Fowler, 59. So she left her belongings and fled in her car, still wearing flip-flops and pajamas.

She can’t go back, but videos from the campground show it was burned to the ground.

“There’s nothing but rubble and twisted metal,” she said. “I’d like to know when I can go back and go through the rubble of my life.”

Knowles and Berman reported from Washington. Derek Hawkins in Washington contributed to this report.