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Oregon Wildfires Continue To Consume Land, Firefighters' Attention

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Los Angeles, where I have to say the air has been nasty all weekend from wildfires not far from here - but it gets a whole lot worse as you go farther up the coast. Numerous fires have burned millions of acres in California as well as Oregon and Washington state. These fires have killed at least 30 people so far. Hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated. And in some places, flames have literally consumed communities.

We have Oregon Public Broadcasting's Rebecca Ellis with us from the city of Portland, Ore. And Rebecca, I know you're feeling the effects of all this there. What is the latest?

REBECCA ELLIS, BYLINE: I mean, the fires in Oregon have reached from the southern border to the coast, all the way up to the suburbs of Portland. And there are at least 10 big fires spread out across the state that we're tracking right now. And tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes at this point. And firefighters are getting a handle on some of these fires after a week, but two of the biggest fires that have threatened cities near Portland continue to rage. And that's the Beachie Creek Fire and the Riverside Fire, both south of Portland. Those are about a mile apart right now, and there's a risk they'll combine into one fire in the coming days.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you. I mean, the air quality is - as I said here in LA, I mean, it's been rough, but, you know, you can still breathe for most people. How bad is it there?

ELLIS: So this weekend, Portland's air quality was so bad, it was off the charts of the EPA's Air Quality Index. And it's this really thick, acrid smoke that has descended on the region. It was a big topic of discussion at a press conference held yesterday on the nearby fires. Here's Clackamas County's public health officer, Sarah Present.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SARAH PRESENT: Right now, our region is experiencing the worst air quality in the world, and it's absolutely having an impact on people's health. We know that air quality can worsen asthma or COPD, lead to increased heart attacks, irregular heart rhythms and even death.

ELLIS: And obviously, Portland's not alone here. The West Coast has been blanketed in these clouds of smoke and ash, and there are a number of towns and cities in Oregon this weekend that were breathing more toxic air than Portland. People are being told to stay in their homes; don't drive because the visibility is so poor. And it's gotten so bad that public health officials have told people not to vacuum inside their own homes. And that's because the smoke particles work their way into apartments and houses, and using a vacuum cleaner kicks up these particles and can worsen indoor air quality.

GREENE: Wow. Well, I mean, we mentioned at least 30 people killed in these fires. But I mean, when you're talking about both fires and poor air quality and all the other effects of this, I mean, do we really have a sense for, say, how many people have lost their lives in Oregon, like, directly or indirectly because of all this?

ELLIS: Officials sounded alarm bells last week, saying the state was bracing for a mass fatality incident, as they called it. And right now, there are dozens of people still missing. Officials have confirmed at least nine deaths so far, and that's from three different fires. And they're warning the death toll is likely going to rise as these fires continue. And as you mentioned, this does not include these people who may die as a result of the extremely poor air quality. People have been stuck in the smoke for days now. They can't escape it. You go to bed breathing this really, like, thick and smoky air, and you wake up breathing the same air.

GREENE: Hopefully there will be some kind of relief coming soon if the weather changes. Rebecca Ellis of Oregon Public Broadcasting for us in Portland this morning.

Rebecca, thank you.

ELLIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.