Search for survivors ongoing as wildfires rage in western U.S. and officials warn of mass casualties

Search and rescue teams, with dogs in tow, were deployed across the blackened ruins of southern Oregon towns on Sunday as smoldering wildfires continue to ravage the U.S. west and officials warn of mass casualties.

Fires destroyed thousands of homes and half-dozen small towns, killed at least 26

Fire damage is seen in Mill City, Ore., on Saturday. Diminishing winds and rising humidity helped firefighters battling deadly blazes in Oregon and California, but with dozens of people still missing, authorities in both states feared that the receding flames could reveal many more dead across the blackened landscape. (Gillian Flaccus/The Associated Press)

Search and rescue teams, with dogs in tow, were deployed across the blackened ruins of southern Oregon towns on Sunday as smoldering wildfires continue to ravage the U.S. west and officials warn of mass casualties.

A blitz of wildfires across California, Oregon and Washington state have destroyed thousands of homes and a half-dozen small towns this summer, scorching a landscape the size of New Jersey and killing at least 26 people since early August.

Tracy Koa, a high school teacher, returned to Talent, Ore., on Saturday after evacuating with her partner, Dave Tanksley, and 13-year-old daughter to find her house and neighbourhood reduced to heaps of ash and rubble.

"We knew that it was gone," Koa said in a telephone interview on Sunday. "But then you pull up, and the devastation of just every home. You think of every family and every situation and every burnt-down car, and there are just no words for it."

Crews in Jackson County, Ore., were hoping to venture into rural areas where the Alameda Fire has abated slightly with slowing winds, sending up thick plumes of smoke as the embers burned. From Medford through the neighbouring communities of Phoenix and Talent, an apocalyptic scene of charred residential subdivisions and trailer parks stretched for kilometres along Highway 99.

Community donation centres popped up around Jackson County over the weekend, including one in the parking lot of Home Depot in Phoenix, where farmers brought a pick-up truck bed full of watermelons and people brought water and other supplies.

Shifting weather

After four days of brutally hot, windy weather, the weekend brought calmer winds blowing inland from the Pacific Ocean and cooler, moister conditions that helped crews make headway against blazes that had burned unchecked earlier in the week.

Still, emergency officials worried that the shifting weather might not be enough to quell the fires.

WATCH | Trump makes raging U.S. wildfires a political issue:

Trump makes raging U.S. wildfires a political issue

1 year ago
Duration 2:04
Wildfires in several western U.S. states are leaving a path of devastation and President Donald Trump is turning the blazes into a political football by blaming poor forest management, while local officials blame climate change. 2:04

"We're concerned that the incoming front is not going to provide a lot of rain here in the Medford region and it's going to bring increased winds," Bureau of Land Management spokesperson Kyle Sullivan told Reuters in a telephone interview on Sunday.

At least 10 people have been killed in Oregon, according to the office of emergency management. Gov. Kate Brown has said that dozens of people remained missing across three counties.

There were 34 active fires burning in Oregon as of Sunday morning, according to the state's Office of Emergency Management website.

Brown called the perilous fires a "once-in-a-generation event," and the director of the Office of Emergency Management, Andrew Phelps, said authorities were bracing for the possibility of "mass fatality" incidents.

Thick smoke and ash from the fires has darkened the sky over the Pacific Northwest since Labour Day, creating some of the  world's worst air-quality levels and driving residents indoors. Satellite images showed the smoke was wafting inland in the eastern direction, the Bureau of Land Management said on Twitter on Sunday.

Active wildfires in Washington, Oregon and California on Sept. 13, 2020. (CBC)

Drought conditions, extreme temperatures and high winds in Oregon created the "perfect firestorm" for the blazes to grow, Gov. Brown told CBS's Face the Nation on Sunday.

"This is a wake-up call for all of us that we've got to do everything in our power to tackle climate change," she said.

Trump to visit California

In California, tens of thousands of firefighters were battling 28 major wildfires as of Saturday afternoon, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Improving weather conditions had helped them gain a measure of containment over most of the blazes.

The White House said U.S. President Donald Trump, a Republican, will meet with federal and California officials on Monday. Trump has said that western governors bear some of the blame for intense fire seasons in recent years, accusing them of poor forest management.

His Democratic opponent in the November election, Joe Biden, on Saturday linked the conflagrations to climate change, echoing comments made a day earlier by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

More than 4,000 homes and other structures have been incinerated in California alone over the past three weeks.

Firefighters light a controlled burn along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to help contain the Dolan Fire near Big Sur, Calif., on Friday. Tens of thousands of firefighters were battling 28 major wildfires as of Saturday afternoon. (Nic Coury/The Associated Press)

In Portland, Ore., where more than 100 days of political protests have turned increasingly tense in recent weeks, the Multnomah County Sheriff chastised residents for setting up their own checkpoints to stop cars after conspiracy theories spread on social media that members of Black Lives Matter or Antifa were lighting fires. Local officials have called those assertions groundless.

Facebook said on Saturday it was now removing false claims that the wildfires in Oregon were started by certain groups.

"This is based on confirmation from law enforcement that these rumours are forcing local fire and police agencies to divert resources from fighting the fires and protecting the public," a Facebook spokesperson said.