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About 1 million acres are burning in the state and people have been told to leave areas within 30 miles of Portland.
Wildfires have now forced Oregon authorities to call for about a half-million people—or nearly 12% of the state’s entire population—to either evacuate or to prepare to do so.
Gov. Kate Brown said on Friday that around 500,000 people are in areas subject to some level of evacuation advisory and that more than 40,000 people have actually had to leave their homes. About 4.2 million residents in total live in Oregon.
Brown's comments served as a clarification after the state’s emergency management office said on Thursday that "an estimated 500,000 Oregonians have been evacuated" in various parts of the state.
Firefighters were battling upwards of one million acres of blazes burning in the state in multiple areas.
“We have never seen this amount of un-contained fire,” Brown said on Thursday. She pointed out that during the past decade the average acreage that has burned annually in Oregon was about 500,000 acres during the course of an entire year.
“We’ve seen that nearly double in the past three days,” she added.
Brown said that the state knows that there are fire-related fatalities and that more information would be forthcoming. She added on Friday that there were early reports from state police of dozens of people who are missing. So far, fires have killed at least four people in Oregon, The Oregonian reported.
Dry and windy weather has made it difficult to contain the blazes and has caused unpredictable fire movement, officials have said. But on Friday the weather appeared to be turning more favorable.
Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said that dissipating winds, lower temperatures and added moisture in the air would put firefighters in a better position to go on the offensive against the fires.
Entire neighborhoods in places like Talent and Phoenix, located in the southern part of the state, between Medford and Ashland, have been consumed by flames, with hundreds of homes reported destroyed.
Hundreds of miles to the north, officials have warned that a pair of fires burning southeast of Portland and east of Salem—the roughly 130,000-acre Riverside fire and the approximately 182,000-acre Beachie Creek fire—will likely merge.
Those fires have led to Level 3 “leave immediately” evacuation orders in parts of Clackamas County, including in and around towns like Estacada, Molalla and Colton, which are within about 30 miles of downtown Portland.
The state also has two lower levels of evacuation advisories. Level 1 calls for people to be "be ready" for a potential evacuation, and Level 2 asks them to be prepared to leave at a moment's notice.
The Riverside fire was burning two miles southeast of Estacada, according to information posted Friday morning on InciWeb, an interagency website that provides wildfire updates.
"This is where we've seen some of the most dramatic fire-growth in the state," Grafe said as he discussed the Riverside and Beachie Creek fires and the Lionshead fire, which is also burning nearby.
He noted that these fires span across about 56 miles and described such a large set of fires, burning in such close proximity to communities, as without precedent in Oregon.
Large and destructive wildfires have also been burning in parts of California and Washington state in recent days and weeks.
Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency in California, said the over 3.1 million acres burned this year in the state is 26 times greater than the land burned in 2019 for the same time period, and amounts to an area larger than the state of Connecticut.
There have been at least 19 fire-related fatalities and over 3,900 structures destroyed in California alone, Cal Fire said.
In Washington, the small communities of Malden and Pine City, located south of Spokane, were decimated by wildfire earlier this week. And a 1-year-old boy was killed and his parents badly burned as they fled the Cold Springs fire, in northern Washington, in Okanogan County.
Around the Pacific Northwest, air quality deteriorated to unhealthy levels on Friday as smoke from wildfires shrouded the region.
The website IQAir, which ranks cities globally according to air quality listed Portland as having the worst air quality of any major city in the world on Friday. Seattle, San Francisco and Vancouver, British Columbia rounded out the top four.
This story was updated with additional information that Oregon state officials provided at a Friday afternoon press conference.
Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.
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