Wildfires raging through the West Coast of the USA have claimed the lives of at least 31 people, with the region battling with air quality that is so poor it is ‘literally off the charts’.
The authorities are expecting the death total to rise, as Oregon’s emergency management director admitted officials are preparing for a possible ‘mass fatality event’.
More than 40,000 people in the state have been evacuated and about 500,000 are in different levels of evacuation zones, having been told to leave or to prepare to do so, Governor Kate Brown explained. At least 1,500 square miles have burned in Oregon during recent days – nearly double the size of a typical year and an area larger than Rhode Island, authorities said.
Meanwhile, smoke from the wildfires is posing a health hazard to millions as firefighters battle the deadly blazes which have already obliterated some towns and displaced tens of thousands. It has also been dubbed the ‘world’s dirtiest air’.
In Washington state, the land burned in just the past five days amounted to the state’s second-worst fire season, after 2015, Governor Jay Inslee noted.
‘This is not an act of God,’ Mr Inslee said. ‘This has happened because we have changed the climate.’
His intervention comes as stark pictures from San Francisco, California, were compared to scenes in the apocalyptic film Blade Runner and set to its music, as smoke from the fires turned the sky an eerie orange-red.
In that state, 16,000 firefighters have been battling 28 major wildfires, although 24 were sparked on Thursday and quickly contained.
In all, 22 people have died in California since wildfires began breaking out across the state in mid-August.
US President Donald Trump will visit California on Monday for a briefing on the West Coast fires, according to the White House.
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.
Mr Biden said: ‘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.’
Smoke created cooler conditions in California and Oregon, but it was also blamed for making the dirtiest air in at least 35 years in some places.
The air quality index reading on Saturday morning in Salem, the Oregon capital, was 512 and the scale normally goes from zero to 500.
Laura Gleim, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, branded the reading as ‘literally off the charts’.
Because past air quality was rarely so poor, the government’s yardstick for measuring it capped out at 500, Ms 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, Mr 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.
Mr Jones said a warmer world can increase the likelihood of extreme events and contribute to their severity.
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