By Associated Press • 

Winds kick up Northwest wildfires, Oregon Gov declares emergency conflagration

High winds kicked up wildfires across the Pacific Northwest on Tuesday, burning hundreds of thousands of acres, mostly destroying the small town of Malden in eastern Washington state and forcing evacuations and highway closures in Oregon.

Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said on Twitter that about 300,000 acres had burned.

``Thousands of homes are without power. Many families have had to evacuate their homes and many homes have been lost,″ Franz wrote. ``We’re still seeing new fire starts in every corner of the state.″

There were no reports of deaths.

``As of this morning, we have 9 large fires,’' Franz tweeted on Tuesday. ``We had 58 new wildfire starts in the last 24 hours.’'

``Initial attack with our aircraft proved extremely successful. However, hurricane-level gusts and smoke-filled skies was a bad combination for initial attack in the air in many areas,’' Franz wrote.

The high winds and hot temperatures in the Northwest are similar to conditions in California, where thousands of firefighters are battling dozens of fires around the state.

In Oregon, thousands of people were without power as crews battled large fires in Clackamas County on Tuesday morning. Some people were told to evacuate. Over 40,000 people south of Portland were without power.

A grass fire in Ashland in southern Oregon closed down a section of Interstate 5, the main north-south freeway along the West Coast.

In Marion County, which includes the state capitol of Salem, a blaze prompted evacuation orders Tuesday in the western foothills of the Cascade Range.

“The extreme fire activity in the area poses an imminent danger to anyone who chooses to remain in the evacuated area,” Marion County Seriff Joe Kast said. It wasn't immediately clear how many people were affected by the evacuation orders.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday approved an emergency conflagration declaration that freed up state resources for several wildfires that exceed the capabilities of local crews.

“This past weekend, we experienced significant wind that is fueling wildfires with devastating consequences across Oregon, on top of a dire pandemic,’’ Brown said.

Paul Brakeman, mayor of Scotts Mills, Oregon, a town of 370 residents, said he evacuated in the late morning Tuesday.

“Smoke cover was looming over our hill, and people were evacuating in town,” Brakeman said over the phone from his car in nearby Mount Angel. “As I was packing up to leave, someone drove by and he was told (the fire) was 5 miles south of us and headed our way.”

He has reserved a room in Salem, which was also shrouded in smoke. The state fairgrounds in Salem was being converted into an emergency evacuation shelter.

The Marion County Board of Commissioners declared a state of emergency for the county at midday Tuesday due to rapidly spreading wildfires.

“Our sheriff’s deputies and police and fire agencies were heroic and aided hundreds of people last night in the midst of fire,” said Commissioner Colm Willis.

The Oregon Zoo in Portland was closed because of high winds and fire danger.

In Washington state, Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers said a wind-driven fire destroyed an estimated 80% of the homes in the town of Malden, which is about 35 miles (55 kilometers) south of Spokane and has about 200 residents. Malden lost its fire station, post office, City Hall, library and most of its homes, according to the sheriff’s office.

“The scale of this disaster really can’t be expressed in words,” Myers said in a statement. “The fire will be extinguished, but a community has been changed for a lifetime."

The fire was pushed by winds of up to 45 mph (72 kph). Deputies went door to door and used public-address systems to tell residents to evacuate.

“The destruction in Malden, Pine City, Colfax, and other towns in Eastern Washington is heartbreaking and unimaginable,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who represents the area.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources on Tuesday closed all of the lands it manages east of the Cascades to recreation due to high fire danger. The closure will last at least through Friday.

With no recent lightning storms, the overwhelming majority of wildfires DNR is fighting are presumed to be human-caused, the agency said Tuesday. The agency has responded to 106 fires caused by recreation already this year.

``Whenever we close recreation lands to the public, our only motivation is safety,” Franz said.

Meanwhile, wind, smoke and fire plagued Pierce County south of Seattle on Tuesday morning, closing highways, knocking out power and destroying several homes. And numerous fires were burning in Okanogan County and other parts of north-central Washington, forcing evacuations.

A fire burning near Davenport, Washington, grew to 70,000 acres (28,300 hectares) Tuesday morning and was 0% contained, according to the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

Homes and crops were threatened by the fire that sparked when a tree fell on power lines on Labor Day weekend. At least three homes were destroyed by the fire, according to DNR spokeswoman Isabelle Hoygaard.

The Davenport and Odessa School Districts were closed Tuesday due to the fires.

The Cold Springs Fire in Okanogan County grew to 140,000 acres (56,655 hectares) and had no containment Tuesday. Multiple structures have been lost and mandatory evacuation orders and road closures are in place, officials said.

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Selsky contributed from Salem, Oregon.

 

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