PORTLAND: Search and rescue crews using dogs combed through neighbourhoods left in blackened ruins by massive wildfires burning across three states on Saturday (Sep 12), and US President Donald Trump said he would travel to California to see the devastation first-hand.
Flames have destroyed thousands of homes and a half dozen small towns in the latest outbreak of wildfires that have raged across the western United States this summer, scorching a landscape the size of New Jersey and killing at least 26 people since early August.
But after four days of brutally hot, windy weather, the weekend brought calmer winds blowing inland from the Pacific Ocean, and cooler, moister conditions that helped crews make headway against blazes that had burned unchecked earlier in the week.
At least six people have been killed this week in Oregon, according to the state's wildfire tracking website. Governor Kate Brown has said that dozens of people remained missing across three counties.
In California, tens of thousands of firefighters were battling 28 major wildfires as of Saturday afternoon, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Improving weather conditions had helped them gain a measure of containment over most of the blazes.
The White House said Trump, a Republican, will meet with California officials on Monday. The president has said that western governors bear some of the blame for intense fire seasons in recent years, accusing them of poor forest management.
Trump has made little comment about the blazes in recent weeks, but at a Nevada campaign event on Saturday he acknowledged the scope of the disaster.
"They never had anything like this," Trump said. "Please remember the words, very simple, forest management."
His Democratic opponent in the November presidential election, Joe Biden, on Saturday linked the conflagrations to climate change, echoing comments made a day earlier by California Governor Gavin Newsom.
THICK SMOKE BLANKETS THREE STATES
"The debate is over around climate change. Just come to the state of California. Observe it with your own eyes," Newsom said in a briefing livestreamed from a charred mountainside near Oroville, California.
The Pacific Northwest has since Labor Day endured a string of fierce wildfires that have darkened the sky with thick smoke and ash, creating some of the world's worst air-quality levels and driving residents indoors.
The small mountain town of Paradise, California, nearly destroyed in 2018 by the deadliest wildfire in state history, posted the world's worst air quality index reading at 592, according to the PurpleAir monitoring site, as two of the state's largest blazes burned on either side of it.
More than 4,000 homes and other structures have been incinerated in California alone over the past three weeks.
In southern Oregon, an apocalyptic scene of charred residential subdivisions and trailer parks stretched for miles along Highway 99 south of Medford through the neighbouring communities of Phoenix and Talent.
Oregon has suffered another four deaths in the past 24 hours, bringing the state's death toll this week alone to 19.
Among them was a 13-year-old boy found in a car with his dog in his lap. The road was so hot it had melted the tyres as he tried to flee.
Emergency official Andrew Phelps warned Oregon is "preparing for a mass fatality incident based on what we know and the number of structures that have been lost."
Meanwhile Molalla, a logging community 40km south of downtown Portland, was an ash-covered ghost town after its more than 9,000 residents were told to evacuate, with only 30 refusing to leave, the city's fire department said.
Molalla was on the front line of an evacuation zone stretching north to within 4.8 km of downtown Portland. The sheriff in suburban Clackamas County set a 10pm (0500 on Saturday GMT) curfew to deter "possible increased criminal activity."
READ: Fleeing California wildfires harder during COVID-19 pandemic
Joy, a 56-year-old woman sheltering outside Portland who declined to give her last name, told AFP that she and her daughter don't know if their house in Aims - a short drive east - is still standing.
"We saw a bird that was flying and then all sudden it just completely dropped out of the sky ... if it's killing God's creatures, I don't want to die too. So we left," she told AFP.
The Multnomah County Sheriff in Portland chastised residents who had set up their own checkpoints to stop cars after conspiracy theories spread on social media that members of Black Lives Matter or Antifa were lighting fires. Local officials have called those assertions groundless.
"We are removing false claims that the wildfires in Oregon were started by certain groups," a Facebook spokesman said on Saturday. "This is based on confirmation from law enforcement that these rumours are forcing local fire and police agencies to divert resources from fighting the fires and protecting the public."