California firefighters battled the state’s largest ever inferno 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 15 people have been confirmed dead in the past 24 hours across California, Oregon and Washington, but officials said some areas are still impossible to reach, meaning the number is likely to rise.
Half a million people have been evacuated in Oregon.
The August Complex Fire became the biggest recorded blaze in Californian history on Thursday, after multiple fires in the state’s northwest combined amid high temperatures and winds to rip through 470,000 acres of dry vegetation.
In neighboring Oregon, where at least five towns have been “substantially destroyed” and up to 40,000 people evacuated, governor Kate Brown said twice the state’s annual average had burned in just the past 72 hours.
“We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across our state,” she told a press conference.
“We know that there are fire related fatalities. And as soon as we are able to provide confirmed information, we will do so.”
Local Oregon officials have confirmed two deaths in the Santiam Canyon region, 95 kilometers south of Portland, and another was recorded in the Ashland area, near the California border.
In the city of Molalla, police went door to door to make sure that residents were evacuating, marking their driveways with spray paint to show they had left.
“It’s one thing to leave your house, it’s another thing being told that you have to leave,” said Denise Pentz, a resident of Molalla for 11 years who was loading her family belongings into a camping trailer.
“It’s just material, which truly, truly it is, but it’s awful. This is home … But the most important thing is my babies, my husband, my dog, my cat, and that all my neighbors have gotten out safely.”
All three West Coast states have been scrambling to contain rapidly spreading wildfires since the weekend due to unprecedented heat waves followed by intense, dry winds.
Among those killed in the past day was a one-year-old boy who perished while his parents suffered severe burns as they attempted to flee an inferno 130 miles east of Seattle.
“This child’s family and community will never be the same,” said Washington governor Jay Inslee, in a statement on his state’s first fire death of 2020.
“And neither will countless others who are reeling from the utter devastation these wildfires are leaving in their wake.”
In north-central California’s Butte County, where 10 people have been killed, firefighters battled the flames through the night after a day of apocalyptic orange skies over the Golden State.
Another dozen people were reportedly unaccounted for in the area.
One unidentified person was killed in far northern California, near the remote rural community of Happy Camp, a Cal Fire spokeswoman told AFP.
Tina Rose, 29, fled her home in central California after witnessing the mountain in front “glowing red” from looming wildfires.
“We were packing everything and you can hear the propane tanks just exploding… and when we heard the second one we were just like ‘we need to go in case it does move faster’, because you never know,” she told AFP.
“It is something we never want to experience again,” she said, speaking from her brother-in-law’s crowded home near Fresno.