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Wildfires race across the West: Cooler weather may aid fight; officials prep for 'mass' fatalities

Grace Hauck
USA TODAY

Thousands of firefighters were on the lines of dozens of major wildfires across the western U.S. on Saturday as smoke continued to cloud the air. But fire officials were hopeful that cooler weather over the next few days would give them a leg up in their battle against the blazes.

"As weather conditions continue to improve, firefighters are gaining ground on a number of wildfires, many of which have been burning now for over a month," Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said Friday. "In northern California, that smoke layer will actually help us maintain some cooler temperatures."

At least 25 people have died and hundreds of homes have been destroyed in the fires. At least 19 deaths have been reported in California, five in Oregon and one in Washington state. Cal Fire continued to report 20 total deaths Saturday, but a local official in northern California retracted a reported death Friday, explaining that a burned anatomical skeleton used for academic purposes was mistaken for human remains.

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The state has seen five of its 20 largest fires in history this year, Berlant said, as well as two of its 20 most deadly. This fire season, more than 6,300 structures have been damaged or destroyed, and nearly 5,000 square miles have been burned, according to Cal Fire. 

Oregon and Washington state have also been hit hard. More than 1,400 square miles have burned in Oregon, and nearly 1,000 square miles in Washington state. (Here's how big that really is.)

Dozens of people were missing in Oregon, 40,000 people have been evacuated, and more than 1,500 square miles have burned, Gov. Kate Brown said Friday. About 500,000 citizens are in different levels of evacuation zones, either having been told to leave or to prepare to do so, and more than 2,000 people were sheltered by the Red Cross on Thursday evening.

Ellie Owens, 8, from Grants Pass, Ore., looks at fire damage Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, as destructive wildfires devastate the region in Talent, Ore. (AP Photo/Paula Bronstein)

Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, said in a press conference Friday that the state was preparing for more fatalities, though he did not elaborate.

"We know we're dealing with fire-related death, and we're preparing for a mass fatality incident, based on what we know," Phelps said.

Wind-driven fires were also burning in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. Several of the states were grappling with unhealthy air quality, and some Oregon school districts have temporarily closed.

"Right now, our air quality ranks the worst in the world due to these fires," Brown said Friday. "Almost anywhere in the state you can feel this right now."

At least seven weeks remain in the prime fire season. Fire officials cautioned residents to remain on their guard in the coming weeks as cooler temperatures set in.

"Don't let these cooler temperatures fool you," Berlant said. "Historically, it is September and October when we experience our largest and most damaging wildfires."

Map of wildfires