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With dozens missing in possible ‘mass fatality incident,’ Oregon struggles to combat wildfires

A woman tosses a bucket of water on a smoldering hot spot in the woods
Amid a statewide shortage of firefighters, Melissa Rose, left, and Christine VanOeveren throw water on hot spots at a fire line near Molalla, Ore.
(Richard Read / Los Angeles Times)

Christine VanOeveren grabbed a bucket Saturday and lugged water from a neighbor’s swimming pool to douse embers from a wildfire that threatened to merge with another blaze to cover an area as big as Los Angeles.

The 45-year-old mother of two and her husband, John, had helped beat back flames Friday that came within 500 yards of their house 45 miles south of Portland, Ore. On Saturday, after clearing ash from their roof, they joined neighbors dousing hot spots at a nearby home.

The VanOeverens were among thousands of Oregon residents who, despite warnings from state officials to evacuate, have sought to defend their houses and property from wildfires that have left at least seven people dead and dozens missing. The couple do stay away at night — and sent their children to stay with grandparents — but go back during the day, to check on the house and to fight ongoing fires in the neighborhood.

Short on firefighters, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is asking other states and the federal government to send crews to help battle more than three dozen blazes that have scorched 1 million acres and wiped out entire towns. The state’s emergency management director, Andrew Phelps, said Friday that officials were preparing for a “mass fatality incident” once crews get access to burned-out communities. And he and others have strongly warned people not to return to evacuated communities.

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But with 500,000 people — more than 10% of the state’s residents — subject to evacuation orders or warnings, many felt compelled to stay and fight.

“Even if we lose our homes, at least we fought to save them,” said VanOeveren, whose house in an evacuation zone has been without power since Tuesday. “We have generators running to keep our freezers going, and all our smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are beeping constantly.”

Thick smoke and ash from the fires made Portland’s air quality the worst among the world’s major cities Saturday morning. The smoke partially blocked the sun, reducing temperatures and raising humidity as winds diminished, helping firefighters.

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Outside Portland’s suburbs, the Riverside fire threatening the VanOeverens’ house had burned 133,000 acres and destroyed at least 33 homes as of Saturday. Officials said it could merge with the Beachie Creek fire to the south into a blaze covering 500 square miles, potentially causing explosive fire activity.

High winds earlier in the week drove eruptive fires that decimated towns including Phoenix, Talent and Blue River.

By Saturday, as many as 40,000 Oregonians had evacuated their homes.

In Clackamas County, south of Portland, officials imposed a nightly curfew. Search-and-rescue teams were starting to look for bodies as some areas became safer to enter.

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Emergency director Phelps has warned residents to remain away from evacuated areas and to not engage in disaster tourism. “Don’t do it,” he said Thursday. “It’s disrespectful to those who have lost everything” and is “dangerous to you and firefighters.”

But many people have been returning to check on their homes and livestock. Some residents have set up checkpoints to stop motorists, saying they want to ask them questions to prevent burglaries — a practice that officials have also discouraged.

Like the winds that race down the mountainsides near Los Angeles each fall, gaining heat and fanning the flames as they go, the gales that struck Oregon over the weekend have turned small fires into infernos.

In a sign of strain on the official response, Oregon’s fire marshal, Jim Walker, resigned Saturday after having been put on administrative leave, state police announced. His chief deputy, Mariana Ruiz-Temple, was appointed to succeed him.

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In southern Oregon, crews battling raging fires that have left about 50 people missing made progress thanks to favorable weather overnight Friday, according to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. Officials said the Almeda fire — which leveled Phoenix and Talent — had minimal growth and was 50% contained.

The fire gutted entire neighborhoods and mobile home parks, where residents had little notice to evacuate.

Vanessa Houk and her two daughters narrowly escaped the fire when it raged through her mobile home park near Ashland on Tuesday, leaving the area devastated and smoldering.

When the 51-year-old saw the gray billowing smoke filling the air about three miles from her home, she told the children to start packing their clothes. The plan was for Houk’s husband to return home, pick them up and leave.

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Houk grabbed a box that contained paperwork, passports and other documents. She laid out the items on the porch, including mementos of her son who died shortly after he was born in 1998, and waited for her husband.

But it was too late. The fire was inching closer and he was unable to reach her.

“He told me we needed to leave on foot,” Houk recalled her husband telling her. Soon, her neighbors followed. As they walked to a nearby creek, they struggled to breathe through the thick smoke engulfing them.

“Two sheriff’s deputies came and said we need to get in their vehicles now,” Houk said. “As we left, everything was burning around us.”

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Jose Acosta, 73, fled his home of 60 years in Phoenix, population 4,500, without time to cart away tools from his three shops. The house and shops burned, causing at least $1 million in damage, he said.

A neighbor saved his second home and three other houses in the area by dousing spot fires with water from a nearby creek after local taps ran dry. They met up Saturday in the parking lot of a park Acosta helped build years ago.

“He saved my house. I’m grateful for what we have here and to you guys,” Acosta said.

“We just went in there and did all we could,” said the neighbor, Jim Brady, 68, who moved to town five years ago from Torrance. “There are some things beyond what we can do.”

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Authorities on Friday arrested a man on suspicion of setting a fire in Phoenix — near the area where fire officials were already battling the Almeda blaze. The suspect, 41-year-old Michael Bakkela, was charged with two counts of arson, 15 counts of criminal mischief and 14 counts of reckless endangerment.

Law enforcement officials around the state were trying to put a stop to what they said were baseless rumors that fires were being started by adherents of antifa, a leftist, anti-fascist movement whose followers have participated in social justice protests in Portland.

“Rumors spread just like wildfire, and now our 911 dispatchers and professional staff are being overrun with requests for information and inquiries on an untrue rumor that six antifa members have been arrested for setting fires in Douglas County, Ore.,” the county Sheriff’s Office said in a Facebook post Thursday. “Unfortunately people are spreading this rumor and it is causing problems.”

Across Oregon, about 3,000 firefighters were combating wildfires, but officials say that to contain them, double that number is needed. Utah was dispatching strike teams, and Gov. Brown, a Democrat, has asked the U.S. Department of Defense to send trained crews.

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Ignoring official warnings, some volunteers were forming roving amateur crews and driving into fire zones. Sheriff’s deputies appeared to look the other way at times, despite official policy.

In the hard-hit canyon town of Gates, about 35 miles east of Salem, construction worker Ricky Keen drove around in a water truck with his brother, a friend and makeshift fire hoses, putting out small blazes.They stopped at the remains of one house, drove past it and sprayed smoking embers in surrounding bushes until they died.

“It’s still smoldering. There are a lot of spots,” said Keen, 38, of nearby Mill City, whose house had survived. “We‘re just trying to help out.”

Stephan Weaver fought fires when he was younger as part of a private contract hot shot crew, but this week he joined volunteers in Gates.

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“It made a big difference. Let the local fire department worry about in town. There’s a lot of small flare-ups that could have added up into bigger things,” said Weaver, 42, who lives in Mill City and drives a log truck.

On Friday, Weaver said he and other volunteers spotted 15-foot flames leaping from a stump.

“We took the water truck, a few guys and some hoses, and put the fires out,” he said, before U.S. Forest Service police arrived and told them to leave the area. Weaver said he and his friends, one of whom lived on the property, refused.

“We said, ‘We’re not going,’” he recounted. “‘You guys took off five days ago. We’ve been here the whole time. Don’t come back and tell us we’re in the way.’”

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But Weaver said he also understands fire officials’ concerns.

“A volunteer can be just as much of a hindrance as a help. There were people going out in a completely black area dumping water on some smoke. The experienced people were like, ‘No, we need to move on to where it’s actively burning and we can do some help,’” he said.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword. It’s nice that people want to volunteer, but in my opinion, we shouldn’t have to,” Weaver added. “The Forest Service shouldn’t have pulled out and put the community in that position.”

Read reported from Molalla, Ore.; Hennessy-Fiske from Phoenix, Ore.; and Etehad from Los Angeles.


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