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Oregon Officials Say Wildfire Destruction Is Unprecedented

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The sights, sounds and smells are of utter devastation in the West. Massive wildfires raging in multiple states have wiped out communities, destroyed hundreds of homes and are threatening many more. The fires are so massive in Northern California, the thick smoke actually blotted out the sun around the Bay Area, ash falling from a rust-orange sky. The fires have killed several people. At least three died in Oregon, where there are about three dozen wildfires burning in every region of that state. Mass evacuation orders have displaced tens of thousands of people.

Oregon Public Broadcasting's Emily Cureton joins us now with the latest. Emily, good morning. So just tell us what is happening right now in the state of Oregon. I mean, the governor called this a firestorm that took off on Monday, right?

EMILY CURETON, BYLINE: Yeah. State officials - they're calling the destruction seen so far unprecedented. As of Wednesday afternoon, fires were burning on more than 500 square miles of the state, and communities located hundreds of miles apart have been substantially destroyed. This includes Detroit, Blue River, Vida, Phoenix and Talent, Ore. At a press conference yesterday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown told Oregonians to brace for a death toll. Here's Brown.

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KATE BROWN: This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state's history.

CURETON: Brown sent a letter yesterday to President Donald Trump requesting a federal emergency declaration to free up more state resources for things like search and rescue, shelter, food and mortuary assistance.

MARTIN: I mean, understanding these fires are still raging, but at this point, do we have a sense of how many lives have been lost and what the property damage is thus far?

CURETON: So far, three people are confirmed dead as of Wednesday. This includes a 13-year-old boy and his 71-year-old grandmother. More deaths are expected. Search and rescue operations in the burn areas have been slowed by the dangerous windy conditions over the last three days and the fact that they're still evacuating people. As for property, early reports indicate at least hundreds of homes in central and southern Oregon have burned.

My colleague Dirk VanderHart spoke to Dennis Mahlum yesterday in Salem. Mahlum's house burned down near the Santiam River in the community of Gates.

DENNIS MAHLUM: Pretty much the whole town is gone. There isn't much left there, so. The worst part of it is we're hearing from my son up in the Molalla area, and I think his home burned to the ground last night, too.

CURETON: For some perspective, his son's home is 50 miles from Mahlum's, on a different river.

Meanwhile, more than 50,000 people are without electricity this morning, and there's smoke blanketing much of western Oregon, making the air unhealthy to breathe, and that's especially bad news for vulnerable groups and people with COVID-19.

MARTIN: Right. So speaking of which, I mean, we know the virus can spread really quickly in close quarters. How are emergency responders sheltering evacuees?

CURETON: The Red Cross has set up temporary evacuation points around the state, and these aren't like shelters of the past. They're more like parking lots where evacuees can come to stay in and around their vehicles while volunteers try to meet their needs. Red Cross spokesman Chad Carter says people who need shelter are being handled on a case-by-case basis.

CHAD CARTER: So when someone shows up and they do need shelter, we're prioritizing, based on the size and scope of the disaster, hotel rooms. That's the safest place for folks to be because of COVID-19.

CURETON: That said, there just aren't enough available hotel rooms near the evacuated communities, and so some of the more traditional shelters are being set up.

MARTIN: Just briefly, what are fire managers expecting today?

CURETON: Hopefully better news and weaker winds. The fire managers are calling this a hopeful change in weather conditions, where they want to be able to pivot from survival mode to containment.

MARTIN: Emily Cureton, a reporter with Oregon Public Broadcasting. Emily, thanks for your reporting on this. We appreciate it.

CURETON: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.