Smoke chokes the West Coast as wildfire deaths keep climbing

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Wildfire smoke that posed a health hazard to millions choked the West Coast on Saturday as firefighters battled deadly blazes that obliterated some towns and displaced tens of thousands of people, the latest in a series of calamities this year.

For people already enduring the coronavirus pandemic, the resulting economic fallout and political tensions evident in the Black Lives Matter protests and far-right counter protests, the fires added a new layer of misery.

“What’s next? You have the protests, coronavirus pandemic, now the wildfires. What else can go wrong?” lamented Danielle Oliver, 40, of Happy Valley, southeast of Portland.

The death toll from the fires inCalifornia, Oregon and Washington stood at 31 and was expected to rise sharply. Most of the fatalities were in California and Oregon.

Oregon’s emergency management director said officials were preparing for a possible “mass fatality event” if many more bodies turn up in the ash. And the state fire marshal resigned after abruptly being placed on administrative leave. The state police superintendent said the crisis demanded an urgent response that required a leadership change.

Oliver has an autoimmune disorder that makes her vulnerable to wildfire smoke, so she agreed to evacuate. She was nervous about going to a shelter because of the virus, but sleeping in a car with her husband, 15-year-daughter, two dogs and a cat was not a viable option.

The temperature checks and social distancing at the American Red Cross shelter helped put her mind at ease. Now the family waits, hoping their house will survive. She has previously experienced homelessness.

“I’m tired. I’m tired of starting all over. Getting everything, working for everything, then losing everything,” she said.

Those who still had homes were not safe in them. A half-million Oregonians were under evacuation warnings or orders to leave. With air contamination levels at historic highs, people stuffed towels under door jambs to keep smoke out. Some even wore N95 masks in their own homes.

Some communities resembled the bombed-out cities of Europe after World War II, with buildings reduced to charred rubble piled atop blackened earth. Residents either managed to flee as the flames closed in, or perished.

Millicent Catarancuic’s body was found near a car on her 5-acre property in Berry Creek, California. The flames came so quickly she did not have time to get out.

On Tuesday, she packed several of her dogs and cats in the car but later called her daughter to say she decided to stay. Firefighters had made progress battling the blaze. The wind was calm. The flames still seemed far away. Then they rushed onto the property.

“I feel like, maybe when they passed, they had an army of cats and dogs with her to help her through it,” said her daughter, Holly Catarancuic.

In Oregon alone, more than 40,000 people have been evacuated and about 500,000 are in different levels of evacuation zones, Gov. Kate Brown said.

Fires along Oregon’s Cascade Range grew Saturday, but at a slower rate than earlier in the week, when strong easterly winds acted like a bellows, pushing two large fires — the Beachie Creek Fire and the Riverside Fire — toward each other and the state’s major population centers, including Portland’s southeastern suburbs.

Fire managers did get a spot of good news: Higher humidity slowed the flames considerably.

61 PHOTOSCalifornia wildfiresSee GalleryCalifornia wildfiresIn this image taken with a slow shutter speed, embers light up a hillside behind the Bidwell Bar Bridge as the Bear Fire burns in Oroville, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. The blaze, part of the lightning-sparked North Complex, expanded at a critical rate of spread as winds buffeted the region. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)Flames lick above vehicles on Highway 162 as the Bear Fire burns in Oroville, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. The blaze, part of the lightning-sparked North Complex, expanded at a critical rate of spread as winds buffeted the region. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)A bicycle burns on an unattended property near Del Dios Highway in the Rancho Santa Fe area of San Diego, California October 23, 2007. Wildfires stoked by fierce winds burned unchecked across Southern California for a third day on Tuesday with 300,000 people in San Diego alone evacuated as flames destroyed or threatened homes from humble forest cabins to luxury villas. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni (UNITED STATES)Also see GF2DWTIKDNAAA firefighter puts out a hot spot along Highway 38 northwest of Forrest Falls, Calif., as the El Dorado Fire continues to burn Thursday afternoon, Sept. 10, 2020. The fire started by a device at a gender reveal party on Saturday. (Will Lester/The Orange County Register/SCNG via AP)Firefighters watch the Bear Fire approach in Oroville, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. The blaze, part of the lightning-sparked North Complex, expanded at a critical rate of spread as winds buffeted the region. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)A plume rises from the Bear Fire as it burns along Lake Oroville on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, in Butte County, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)A scorched car rests in a clearing following the Bear Fire in Butte County, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. The blaze, part of the lightning-sparked North Complex, expanded at a critical rate of spread as winds buffeted the region. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)An air tanker drops retardant at a wildfire burns at a hillside in Yucaipa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. Three fast-spreading wildfires sent people fleeing and trapped campers in one campground as a brutal heat wave pushed temperatures above 100 degrees in many parts of California. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)Smoke and haze from wildfires partially obscures the view of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge along the Embarcadero in San Francisco, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)Fresno County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeffery Shipman, left, stands along California State Highway 168 as the Creek Fire burns in the near vicinity, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)The Creek Fire burns in the Sierra National Forest, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, near Big Creek, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Firefighters stage near a Southern California Edison power station to protect it from the advancing Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Big Creek, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)A firefighter covers himself from flying embers while fighting the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Big Creek, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Members of the Laguna Hotshots, out of the Cleveland National Forest, walk down a hillside while fighting the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Big Creek, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)TOPSHOT – A charred swing set and car are seen after the passage of the Santiam Fire in Gates, Oregon, on September 10, 2020. – California firefighters battled the state’s largest ever inferno on September 10, as tens of thousands of people fled blazes up and down the US West Coast and officials warned the death toll could shoot up in coming days. At least eight people have been confirmed dead in the past 24 hours across California, Oregon and Washington, but officials say some areas are still impossible to reach, meaning the number is likely to rise. (Photo by Kathryn ELSESSER / AFP) (Photo by KATHRYN ELSESSER/AFP via Getty Images)A firefighter uses a hose to try to extinguish flames from a burning structure while fighting the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Big Creek, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Members of the Laguna Hotshots, out of the Cleveland National Forest, monitor hot spots while fighting the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Big Creek, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)A member of the Laguna Hotshots, out of the Cleveland National Forest, monitors flames caused by the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Big Creek, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Smoke from the Bobcat Fire is seen from California State Highway 39 in Azusa, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020 The heat wave was expected to spread triple-digit temperatures over much of California through Monday. Temperatures in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles reached 116 degrees (46 Celsius) for the second day in a row, forecasters said. (AP Photo/Christian Monterrosa)Gabe Huck, right, a member of a San Benito Monterey Cal Fire crew, stands along state Highway 168 while fighting the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Smoke from wildfires clouds the sky over greater Los Angeles, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, as seen from Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/John Antczak)Firefighters ignite a controlled burn with drip torches while fighting the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)A firefighter runs along state Highway 168 with a flare as part of a controlled burn to fight the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Firefighter Ricardo Gomez, of a San Benito Monterey Cal Fire crew, sets a controlled burn with a drip torch while fighting the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)CORRECTS MONTH TO SEPTEMBER INSTEAD OF AUGUST – People load water into their car in front of a Trader Joe’s grocery store as smoke from the Bobcat Fire rises in the background, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Azusa, Calif. (AP Photo/Christian Monterrosa)A firefighter watches the advancing Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Firefighters stage along the lake while fighting the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)A firefighter walks along state Highway 168 with a drip torch during a controlled burn to fight the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)A firefighter uses a drip torch to ignite a controlled burn as he fights the Creek Fire along state Highway 168, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Smoke from the Creek Fire fills the air over a boating dock, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Gabe Huck, a member of a San Benito Monterey Cal Fire crew, walks along state Highway 168 while fighting the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Los Angeles Fire Department personnel work to douse several small brush fires in the Sepulveda Basin in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020. In Southern California, crews scrambled to douse several fires that popped up. The largest was a blaze in the foothills of Yucaipa east of Los Angeles that prompted evacuation orders for eastern portions of the city of 54,000 along with several mountain communities. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)Los Angeles Fire Department firefighters hike into the Sepulveda Basin to fight a brush fire in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020. In Southern California, crews scrambled to douse several fires that popped up. The largest was a blaze in the foothills of Yucaipa east of Los Angeles that prompted evacuation orders for eastern portions of the city of 54,000 along with several mountain communities. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)A Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter makes a water drop over a brush fire in the Sepulveda Basin in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020. In Southern California, crews scrambled to douse several fires that popped up. The largest was a blaze in the foothills of Yucaipa east of Los Angeles that prompted evacuation orders for eastern portions of the city of 54,000 along with several mountain communities. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)A Los Angeles fire department helicopter makes a water drop over a brush fire at the Sepulveda Basin in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020. In Southern California, crews scrambled to douse several fires that popped up. The largest was ablaze in the foothills of Yucaipa east of Los Angeles that prompted evacuation orders for eastern portions of the city of 54,000 along with several mountain communities. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)Los Angeles Fire Department firefighters make their way into the Sepulveda Basin to fight a brush fire in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020. In Southern California, crews scrambled to douse several fires that popped up. The largest was a blaze in the foothills of Yucaipa east of Los Angeles that prompted evacuation orders for eastern portions of the city of 54,000 along with several mountain communities. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)An air tanker drops retardant at a wildfire burns at a hillside in Yucaipa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. Three fast-spreading wildfires sent people fleeing and trapped campers in one campground as a brutal heat wave pushed temperatures above 100 degrees in many parts of California. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)Smoke rises from a wildfire burning at a hillside in Yucaipa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. Three fast-spreading wildfires sent people fleeing and trapped campers in one campground as a brutal heat wave pushed temperatures above 100 degrees in many parts of California. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)A firefighter works on hotspot at a wildfire in Yucaipa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. Three fast-spreading wildfires sent people fleeing and trapped campers in one campground as a brutal heat wave pushed temperatures above 100 degrees in many parts of California. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)A helicopter drops water at wildfire burns near homes at a hillside in Yucaipa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. Three fast-spreading wildfires sent people fleeing and trapped campers in one campground as a brutal heat wave pushed temperatures above 100 degrees in many parts of California. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)A helicopter drops water at wildfire burns near homes at a hillside in Yucaipa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. Three fast-spreading wildfires sent people fleeing and trapped campers in one campground as a brutal heat wave pushed temperatures above 100 degrees in many parts of California. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)A wildfire burns at a hillside in Yucaipa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. Three fast-spreading wildfires sent people fleeing and trapped campers in one campground as a brutal heat wave pushed temperatures above 100 degrees in many parts of California. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)Los Angeles fire department firefighters work to put out a brush fire in the Sepulveda Basin in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020. In Southern California, crews scrambled to douse several fires that popped up. The largest was a blaze in the foothills of Yucaipa east of Los Angeles that prompted evacuation orders for eastern portions of the city of 54,000 along with several mountain communities. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)Los Angeles fire department firefighters work to put out a brush fire in the Sepulveda Basin in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020. In Southern California, crews scrambled to douse several fires that popped up. The largest was a blaze in the foothills of Yucaipa east of Los Angeles that prompted evacuation orders for eastern portions of the city of 54,000 along with several mountain communities. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)Los Angeles fire department firefighter works to douse the remains of a brush fire in the Sepulveda Basin in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020. In Southern California, crews scrambled to douse several fires that popped up. The largest was a blaze in the foothills of Yucaipa east of Los Angeles that prompted evacuation orders for eastern portions of the city of 54,000 along with several mountain communities. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)A Los Angeles fire department helicopter makes a water drop over a brush fire in the Sepulveda Basin in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020. In Southern California, crews scrambled to douse several fires that popped up. The largest was a blaze in the foothills of Yucaipa east of Los Angeles that prompted evacuation orders for eastern portions of the city of 54,000 along with several mountain communities. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)Los Angeles fire department firefighters hike into the Sepulveda Basin to fight a brush fire in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020. In Southern California, crews scrambled to douse several fires that popped up. The largest was a blaze in the foothills of Yucaipa east of Los Angeles that prompted evacuation orders for eastern portions of the city of 54,000 along with several mountain communities. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)A helicopter prepares to drop water at a wildfire in Yucaipa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)A wildfire burns near homes in Yucaipa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)Firefighters rest during a wildfire in Yucaipa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)A firefighter works on hotspots at a wildfire in Yucaipa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)An air tanker drops retardant at a wildfire burns at a hillside in Yucaipa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)An air tanker drops retardant at a wildfire burns at a hillside in Yucaipa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)A plane drops retardant at a wildfire burns at a hillside in Yucaipa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)A wildfire burns in Yucaipa, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)An orange sky filled with wildfire smoke hangs above hiking trails at the Limeridge Open Space in Concord, California, on September 9, 2020. – Dangerous dry winds whipped up California’s record-breaking wildfires and ignited new blazes, as hundreds were evacuated by helicopter and tens of thousands were plunged into darkness by power outages across the western United States. (Photo by Brittany HOSEA-SMALL / AFP) (Photo by BRITTANY HOSEA-SMALL/AFP via Getty Images)SAN FRANCISCO, CA – SEPT. 9: San Francisco City Hall is seen under a sky glowing orangedue to smoke from the wildfires on Wednesday, September 9, 2020 in San Francisco, Calif. (Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)A law enforcement officer watches flames launch into the air as fire continues to spread during the Bear fire in Oroville, California on September 9, 2020. – Dangerous dry winds whipped up California’s record-breaking wildfires and ignited new blazes, as hundreds were evacuated by helicopter and tens of thousands were plunged into darkness by power outages across the western United States. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON / AFP) (Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)A boat motors by as the Bidwell Bar Bridge is surrounded by fire in Lake Oroville during the Bear fire in Oroville, California on September 9, 2020. – Dangerous dry winds whipped up California’s record-breaking wildfires and ignited new blazes Tuesday, as hundreds were evacuated by helicopter and tens of thousands were plunged into darkness by power outages across the western United States. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON / AFP) (Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)OAKLAND, CA – SEPT. 9 This photo of the Mormon Temple, taken with a daylight white balance, shows the effect of smoke from surrounding wildfires in the sky above Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, September 09, 2020. (Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)NAPA, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 09: Golfers warm up on the driving range during the preview day of the Safeway Open at Silverado Country Club on September 9, 2020 in Napa, California. Wildfires rage throughout the state as record high temperatures and dry vegetation fuel the fast-moving, destructive blazes.(Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)Up Next

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In California, a total of 28 active major fires have burned 4,375 square miles, and 16,000 firefighters are trying to suppress the flames, Cal Fire Assistant Deputy Director Daniel Berlant said. Large wildfires continued to burn in northeastern Washington state too.

In all, 22 people have died in California since wildfires began breaking out across the state in mid-August.

President Donald Trump will visit California on Monday for a briefing on the West Coast fires, the White House announced.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and the governors of California, Oregon and Washington state — all Democrats — have said the fires are a consequence of global warming.

“We absolutely must act now to avoid a future defined by an unending barrage of tragedies like the one American families are enduring across the West today,” Biden said.

The same smoke that painted California skies orange also helped crews corral the state’s deadliest blaze of the year by blocking the sun, reducing temperatures and raising humidity, officials said.

Smoke created cooler conditions in Oregon too, but it was also blamed for making the dirtiest air in at least 35 years in some places. The air qualityindex reading Saturday morning in Salem, the state capital, was 512.

The scale normally goes from zero to 500.

“Above 500 is literally off the charts,” said Laura Gleim, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Because past air quality was rarely so poor, the government’s yardstick for measuring it capped out at 500, Gleim said. The department started monitoring in 1985.

The weather conditions that led up to the fires and fed the flames were likely a once-in-a-generation event, said Greg Jones, a professor and research climatologist at Linfield University in McMinnville, Oregon.

A large high-pressure area stretching from the desert Southwest to Alaska brought strong winds from the east toward the West Coast, reducing relative humidity to as low as 8% and bringing desert-like conditions, even to the coast, Jones said.

Instead of the offshore flows that the Pacific Northwest normally enjoys, the strong easterly winds pushed fires down the western slopes of the Cascade Range.

It isn’t clear if global warming caused the conditions, Jones said, but a warmer world can increase the likelihood of extreme events and contribute to their severity.

The smoke in Portland filled the air with an acrid metallic scent like dull pennies. It was so thick that Ashley Kreitzer could not see the road when she headed out to work as a ride-hailing driver.

“I couldn’t even see five feet ahead of me,” she said. “I was panicking, I didn’t even know if I wanted to go out.”

George Coble had no home to return to. He came with some of his employees Saturday to a wasteland of charred tree trunks just outside Mill City, Oregon. Coble lost everything: his fence-and-post business, five houses in a family compound and vintage cars, including a 1967 Mustang.

The family – three generations that lived in the compound — evacuated with seven people, three horses, five dogs and a cat.

“We’ll just keep working and keep your head up and thank God everybody got out,” Coble said. “There are other people that lost their family. Just be thankful for what you did get out with.”

Erik Tucker spent the day hauling buckets of water through what remained of his neighborhood to douse hot spots smoldering in tree trunks five days after the wildfire tore through the area.

Tucker, who lives in Lyons, Oregon, had expected the worst but found his family’s home still standing while homes just down the street were gone. He was coated in ash and smudged with charcoal.

“No power, debris everywhere, smoke, can’t breathe,” he said.

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Whitehurst reported from Portland. Associated Press writers Gillian Flaccus in Mill City, Oregon, Gene Johnson in Seattle and Adam Beam in Sacramento, California, contributed to this report.

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This story has been corrected to say rarely instead of never in this sentence: Because past air quality was rarely so poor, the government’s yardstick for measuring it capped out at 500, Gleim said.

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