Dozens of people are still missing as multiple wildfires continue to burn in Oregon, including two large blazes that could merge near the most populated cities. One of the infernos, part of which was started by a man who has been jailed for arson, destroyed two Southern Oregon towns.
State officials are “preparing for a mass fatality event,” said Andrew Phelps, the state’s emergency management director.
The state has not released a death toll, but at least eight fatalities have been reported so far in the state.
At least 40,000 people have evacuated and about half-million people have either been told to leave or prepare to do so. Hundreds of firefighters were working on blazes near Portland that were just a few miles apart in rugged terrain, in an attempt to keep them from merging, which could allow them to get hotter and spread faster.
Major fires are also burning near Salem and Eugene, heavily populated areas south of Portland, and near Medford in the southern part of the state.
Firefighters from Utah, Canada, the Army and National Guard, along with several federal agencies, have started arriving to reinforce the 3,000 who are already battling blazes across the state, The Bend Bulletin reported.
A Southern Oregon man was arrested for starting one of the fires, which combined with another to cause major damage to the towns of Phoenix and Talent, according to the Oregonian.
Michael Jarrod Bakkela, 41, was charged with two counts of arson, 15 counts of criminal mischief and 14 counts of reckless endangerment for his part in starting one of two tributaries to the Alameda Fire. Local police said a neighbor reported seeing a man starting a fire near his home in the town of Phoenix on Tuesday. Bakkela was found near the blaze when cops arrived, and initially was held on a charge of possession of methamphetamine.
Many of the missing are from the region devastated by the Alameda fire. Entire subdivisions and apartment buildings burned as the flames tore through Phoenix and Talent, according to The Medford Mail Tribune.
Two people were found dead. So far, one of those deaths was confirmed as fire-related, but the local sheriff’s office said they were not victims of the part of the fire that Bakkela started.
The Oregonian reported that more than 50 people remain unaccounted for in that blaze alone, which has burned more than 5,700 acres, over 1,000 homes and hundreds of businesses.
Authorities say more than 1,500 square miles have burned in Oregon during recent days, nearly double the amount in a typical year and encompassing an area larger than Rhode Island.
Improving weather helped firefighters Friday after days of high winds, heat and low humidity. “The wind laid down quite a bit for us yesterday,” said Stefan Myers of the state’s fire information team.
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