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Oregon Wildfires Continue To Rage

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Wildfires have forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes in Oregon, and many more have their bags packed. Here's Governor Kate Brown.

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KATE BROWN: Well over a million acres of land has burned, which is over 1,500 square miles. Right now, our air quality ranks the worst in the world due to these fires. There are early reports from our state police that there are dozens of missing persons related to the fires.

SIMON: And dozens of people have died in these West Coast fires - six in Oregon alone. And, of course, we're expecting those numbers to rise.

Amelia Templeton of Oregon Public Broadcasting joins us. Amelia, thanks for being with us.

AMELIA TEMPLETON, BYLINE: You're welcome.

SIMON: And what is the latest today?

TEMPLETON: Well, large fires are burning throughout the Western Cascade mountains and coastal mountains in Oregon from just, you know, outside of Portland to the border with California. And search and rescue crews are starting to go back into some of the river canyons where these fires really blew up earlier in the week and were moving terribly quickly places that people had little time to evacuate. They are finding some survivors - a couple who made it by wading into the Santiam River - but they are also finding people who did not make it out.

There's also a confirmed death and many, many more people who are reported missing in two cities in southern Oregon, Talent and Phoenix, where a large fire started in, you know, really a quite urban area and burned hundreds of homes and apartments.

SIMON: What about efforts to contain the fires?

TEMPLETON: Crews have made progress on containing the really destructive fire in southern Oregon. Apart from that, you know, many of the fires burning in the state right now are 0% contained. The focus has been on saving lives and evacuation, not building fire lines.

When, you know, fires this large move close to each other, and we have had several that have merged, their smoke columns can interact and actually start to create their own weather - very unstable, very dangerous situation. That's happened just in the last few days - you know, situations where we've had to pull all of the firefighters back off of the lines and sort of abandon the fire fight until things calmed down.

And then the smoke that's blanketed the state has meant that it's been very difficult to bring in air tankers and the other kinds of resources you would usually use to try to, you know, drop fire retardant and control blazes this size. But on the positive side, the wind stopped. It died down. And that alone really dramatically slowed the advance of the fires toward the sort of more populated parts of the state.

SIMON: And it seems, Amelia, that officials have also had to fight rumors, specifically the one gaining ground on the Internet that anti-fascists have set some of the fires. What's behind that?

TEMPLETON: Well, you know, antifa is a disorganized radical movement that believes in physically disrupting far-right demonstrations. And it has, you know, a well-known presence in Portland, a history of unruly and sometimes violent street activism here. I don't know the original genesis of the rumor.

And from a local perspective, these fires are scary. We don't have detailed explanations yet for how all of them started, ignited, although we do know that in one case, arson is under investigation, and in another case, downed power lines played a role. But local sheriffs and even the FBI here in Portland have come out and said very directly there's absolutely no factual basis for these rumors. There's no evidence that antifa or any other political group was involved at all.

And what people need to understand is that, you know, what made this week exceptional in Oregon is not that there were a lot of fires that ignited. That's pretty normal. We are a state with lots of people living in the woods, recreating in the woods. What made this a disaster was the wind that fanned the flames.

SIMON: Amelia Templeton of Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland, thanks so much.

TEMPLETON: You're welcome Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.