UPDATE 1-Crews battle wildfires in U.S. West as smoke travels the world

(Adds details on pollution, statement from Fire Battalion Chief)

PORTLAND, Ore., Sept 16 (Reuters) - Fire crews on the U.S. West Coast on Wednesday battled deadly wildfires that have forced thousands to evacuate and find temporary shelter, as scientists in Europe tracked the smoke spreading on an intercontinental scale.

Dozens of fires have burned some 4.5 million acres (1.8 million hectares) of tinder-dry brush, grass and woodlands in Oregon, California, and Washington state since August, ravaging several small towns, destroying thousands of homes, and killing at least 34 people.

The wildfires, which officials and scientists have described as unprecedented in scope and ferocity, have filled the region's skies with smoke and soot, compounding a public health crisis already posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Pollution has hit historic levels as a result of the fires in five Oregon cities - Portland, Eugene, Bend, Medford and Klamath Falls, the state said Tuesday.

Scientists tracked the smoke as it bore down as far away as Europe. The European Union's Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) is monitoring the scale and intensity of the fires and the transport of their smoke across the United States and beyond.

"The fact that these fires are emitting so much pollution into the atmosphere that we can still see thick smoke over 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles) away reflects just how devastating they have been in their magnitude and duration," CAMS Senior Scientist Mark Parrington said in a statement.


The simultaneous burning of dozens of fires along the West Coast has stretched state resources to their limit, particularly in Oregon, where fires rarely impact the green Cascade Mountains in the way they have this year.

"You can't fight a twenty foot wall of fire that's multiple miles wide with a couple of fire engines," said Shannon Pettner, a Battalion Chief with Oregon's Sweet Home Fire Department.

Pettner has been helping beat back the state's largest wildfire this season - the Beachie Creek Fire, also known as the Santiam Fire. As a local, she said the loss hits on a personal level.

"Places that we would take our children camping or go and visit, we've seen those altered permanently... we won't see those places look the same probably in my lifetime," Pettner said.

President Donald Trump on Tuesday night approved a request from Oregon's governor for a federal disaster declaration, bolstering federal assistance for the state. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said on Wednesday it had obligated more than $1.2 million in mission assignments to bring relief to Oregon.

Eight deaths have been confirmed during the past week in Oregon, with search teams still scouring incinerated towns for the missing.

In California, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) said on Wednesday that 17,000 firefighters were still battling 25 major fires, and the state's death toll stood at 25.

The fires roared to life in California in mid-August, and erupted across Oregon and Washington around Labor Day last week, many of them sparked by catastrophic lightning storms and stoked by record-breaking heatwaves and bouts of howling winds.

Weather conditions improved early this week, enabling firefighters to begin to make headway in efforts to contain and tamp down the blazes.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks, Deborah Bloom and Gabriella Borter; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Rosalba O'Brien)

09/16/2020 18:32

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