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Wildfires race across the West: Cooler weather may aid fight; officials prep for ‘mass’ fatalities – USA TODAY

Thousands of firefighters were on the lines of dozens of major wildfires across the western U.S. on Saturday as smoke continued to cloud the air. But fire officials were hopeful that cooler weather over the next few days would give them a leg up in their battle against the blazes.

“As weather conditions continue to improve, firefighters are gaining ground on a number of wildfires, many of which have been burning now for over a month,” Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said Friday. “In northern California, that smoke layer will actually help us maintain some cooler temperatures.”

At least 26 people have died and hundreds of homes have been destroyed in the fires. At least 19 deaths have been reported in California,six in Oregon and one in Washington state. Cal Fire continued to report 20 total deaths Saturday, but a local official in northern California retracted a reported death Friday, explaining that a burned anatomical skeleton used for academic purposes was mistaken for human remains.

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The state has seen five of its 20 largest fires in history this year, Berlant said, as well as two of its 20 most deadly. This fire season, more than 6,300 structures have been damaged or destroyed, and nearly 5,000 square miles have been burned, according to Cal Fire. 

Oregon and Washington state have also been hit hard. More than 1,400 square miles have burned in Oregon, and nearly 1,000 square miles in Washington state. (Here’s how big that really is.)

Dozens of people were missing in Oregon, 40,000 people have been evacuated, and more than 1,500 square miles have burned, Gov. Kate Brown said Friday. About 500,000 citizens are in different levels of evacuation zones, either having been told to leave or to prepare to do so, and more than 2,000 people were sheltered by the Red Cross on Thursday evening.

Ellie Owens, 8, from Grants Pass, Ore., looks at fire damage Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, as destructive wildfires devastate the region in Talent, Ore.

Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, said in a press conference Friday that the state was preparing for more fatalities, though he did not elaborate.

“We know we’re dealing with fire-related death, and we’re preparing for a mass fatality incident, based on what we know,” Phelps said.

President Donald Trump publicly addressed the fires for the first time Friday on Twitter, thanking the 28,000 firefighters and first responders battling the fires in California, Oregon and Washington. Trump said he has approved 37 Stafford Act Declarations, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate all disaster relief efforts.

The governors of California and Oregon each said they had spoken with the president this week.

Wind-driven fires were also burning in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. In Montana, which is experiencing a mild wildfire season, fires sparked amid 90-degree heat last week were met days later with an early fall snow storm that snapped a 58-year-old cold record in Great Falls.

Many of the affected states were grappling with unhealthy air quality, and some Oregon school districts have temporarily closed.

“Right now, our air quality ranks the worst in the world due to these fires,” Brown said Friday. “Almost anywhere in the state you can feel this right now.”

At least seven weeks remain in the prime fire season. Fire officials cautioned residents to remain on their guard in the coming weeks as cooler temperatures set in.

“Don’t let these cooler temperatures fool you,” Berlant said. “Historically, it is September and October when we experience our largest and most damaging wildfires.”

Map of wildfires

Did a gender reveal party start wildfires?

It has been a week since fire officials say a family used a pyrotechnic device during a gender reveal party that sparked the El Dorado Fire in California. The fire has burned more than 20 square miles in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, according to Cal Fire. Six structures have been damaged, ten have been destroyed, and no one has been injured.

The family members, who tried to extinguish the blaze before dialing 911, are reportedly cooperating with authorities in their investigation. Nearly a week since the fire started, crews are continuing to protect structures in several communities.

“Those responsible for starting fires due to negligence or illegal activity can be held financially responsible and criminally responsible,” Cal Fire officials stated in a press release on Sunday.

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San Bernardino National Forest spokesperson Lee Beyer said fire crews working in steep, rugged and sometimes heavily timbered terrain.

“They are working their butts off with what they have,” Beyer said of the crews. “With the sheer number of fires on basically the whole West Coast, nobody is getting all the people and all the equipment they would like to have.”

In Oregon, a man has been arrested and accused of lighting a fire in Phoenix, which sits between Ashland and Medford. 

State authorities are also investigating the start of the Almeda Fire, which has killed at least two people, destroyed about 600 homes and 100 commercial buildings, according to the State Fire Marshall’s Office. Oregon officials have said the Almeda Fire was human-caused but have not said whether it was a product of arson. 

Contributing: Megan Bridgeman, David Murray and Karl Puckett, Great Falls Tribune; Rebecca Plevin, Sherry Barkas and Mark Olalde, Palm Springs Desert Sun; Matt Brannon, The Redding Record Searchlight

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