CLOVIS, California: Firefighters were battling unprecedented wildfires up and down the US West Coast on Friday (Sep 11) that killed 15 people and forced more than half a million others to flee their homes, with officials warning of more deaths to come in the days ahead.
The true scale of destruction was impossible to count across wide stretches of California, Oregon and Washington cut off from the world by a wall of flames, fuelled by record heatwaves and intense, dry winds.
The August Complex Fire became the biggest recorded blaze in Californian history on Thursday, after multiple fires in the state's northwest combined under high temperatures and winds to rip through 746,000 acres of dry vegetation.
More than 2.6 million acres have been burned across the whole state so far, a Cal Fire spokesman said on Thursday evening.
Over the past 48 hours, four people died from fires in California, while four were killed in Oregon and a 1-year-old boy died in Washington state, police reported. Thousands faced evacuation orders in the three states.
The number of people under evacuation orders in Oregon alone climbed late in the day to around 500,000, about an eighth of the state's total population, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Emergency Management said.
Thousands more were displaced north and south in the neighbouring states of Washington and California.
Oregon has borne the brunt of nearly 100 major wildfires raging across the western United States this week. Around 3,000 firefighters have been battling nearly three dozen blazes in Oregon, and fire officials saying about twice as many personnel are needed to bring those conflagrations under control.
Police have opened a criminal investigation into at least one Oregon blaze, the Almeda Fire that started in Ashland near the border with California, Ashland Police Chief Tighe O'Meara said.
O'Meara said investigators were treating the origins of the Almeda fire as suspicious.
"We have good reason to believe that there was a human element to it. so we're going to pursue it as a criminal investigation until we have reason to believe that it was otherwise," he told Reuters.
O'Meara said he expected the death toll from the Almeda Fire, initially blamed for two of Oregon's fatalities, to rise as search teams combed through the ruins of dwellings that burned in the midst of a chaotic evacuation.
Police in Medford as well as in Douglas County to the north cautioned against rumours left-wing anti-fascists and right-wing Proud Boy arsonists were starting the fires.
Police went door to door to make sure that residents were evacuating the city of Molalla, marking their driveways with spray paint to show they had left.
"It's one thing to leave your house, it's another thing being told that you have to leave," said Denise Pentz, a resident of the town for 11 years, who was loading her family belongings into a camping trailer.
The Oregon blazes tore through at least five communities in the Cascade mountain range as well as areas of coastal rainforest normally spared from wildfires. In eastern Washington state, a fire destroyed most of the farming town of Malden.
In central Oregon, search and rescue teams entered torched communities like Detroit where firefighters 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 have succumbed after flames engulfed an area near Lyons, about 80km south of Portland, the Marion County Sheriff's Office said.
In Washington, a one-year-old boy also perished while his parents suffered severe burns as they attempted to flee an inferno 209km east of Seattle.
"This child's family and community will never be the same," said Washington governor Jay Inslee, in a statement on his state's first fire death of 2020.
Police said the death toll had jumped to 10 in northern California's Butte County on Thursday.
"We have to report an additional seven deceased individuals were located by our deputies and detectives today," Butte County Sheriff Captain Derek Bell said.
One unidentified person was killed in far northern California, near the remote rural community of Happy Camp, a Cal Fire spokeswoman told AFP.
Tina Rose, 29, fled her home in central California after witnessing a nearby mountain "glowing red" from looming wildfires.
"It is something we never want to experience again," she told AFP, speaking from her brother-in-law's crowded home near Fresno.
"EMBERS GOING FOR MILES"
To the south, a Reuters photographer saw small communities near Medford, 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 house 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.
Firefighters said unusually hot, dry winds out of the east supercharged blazes, spreading flames from community to community, and then from house to house.
"When it really gets windy these embers are going for miles," said firefighter Andy Cardinal in Eagle Point, north of Medford where the town of around 10,000 was on standby to evacuate.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown said up to 40,000 people had evacuated across the state where 365,000 hectares had burned, dwarfing Oregon's average 202,000 hectare full-year total.
"We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across the state," Brown told a news conference. "We are feeling the acute impacts of climate change."
Climate scientists say global warming has contributed to greater extremes in wet and dry seasons, causing vegetation to flourish then dry out in the US West, leaving more abundant, volatile fuel when fires burn.
By evening, two of Oregon's largest fires, burning around 38km southeast of downtown Portland, had merged, leading to a major expansion of evacuations in densely populated Clackamas County, emergency management spokeswoman Bobbi Doan said.
Asked whether Portland's metro areas might be evacuated, Chief Deputy State Fire Marshal Mariana Ruiz Temple said everything would depend on wind direction and force.
CALIFORNIA AND WASHINGTON FIRES
In California, officials said around 64,000 people were under evacuation orders while crews battled 29 major fires across portions of the most populous US state.
About a third of those evacuees were displaced in Butte County alone, north of the capital Sacramento, where the North Complex wildfire has scorched around 100,000 hectares and destroyed more than 2,000 homes and structures.
The remains of three victims were found in two separate locations of that fire zone, according to Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea, bringing the total death toll from this summer's devastating spate of California wildfires to at least 11.
Another person died in Siskiyou County in Northern California, state fire authority Cal Fire reported, providing no further details.
READ: Fleeing California wildfires harder during COVID-19 pandemic
Wildfires have now burned more than 1.2 million hectares in California in 2020, marking a record for any year, with six of the top 20 largest wildfires in state history occurring in 2020.
In Washington, a man and a woman were in critical condition with burns after their 1-year-old son died as they tried to escape the state's largest wildfire burning in mountains about 160km northwest of Spokane, the Okanogan County Sheriff's Office said in a statement.