US officials warned on Friday of potential “mass” fatalities as more than 20,000 firefighters from across the country battled sprawling deadly wildfires up and down the West Coast.
A prediction of cooler weather offered some hope of respite in coming days, but the true scale of the destruction from dozens of massive blazes in California, Oregon and Washington states remained hard to gauge.
“We’re preparing for a mass fatality incident based on what we know and the number of structures that have been lost,” warned Andrew Phelps, director of the office of emergency management in Oregon on Friday.
Oregon defines “mass fatality incident” as one that causes death and suffering which cannot be met by usual individual or community resources, according to the Washington Post.
“We anticipate that number (of deaths) may potentially go up as we get back into areas that have been ravaged by flame and obviously, smoke begins to clear,” warned California governor Gavin Newsom, as he visited a scorched forest near the raging North Complex Fire.
As of Friday afternoon about 500,000 people in Oregon were on notice to be ready to flee advancing flames, and crews picked through the smoldering rubble of destroyed homes in search of fatalities.
The wildfires have already destroyed at least half a dozen small towns in the northwestern United States and California’s governor called the fire season evidence of a climate emergency.
“This is a climate damn emergency. This is real and it’s happening. This is the perfect storm,” Mr Newsom told reporters from a charred mountainside near Oroville, California.
The death toll from the siege of West Coast fires that began in August jumped to 24 after seven people were reported killed in a fire burning in mountains around 85 miles (137km) north of Sacramento, California.
Oregon’s governor said dozens of people were reported missing after fires in Jackson, Marion and Lane counties.
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