16 dead in US wildfires as cool weather brings hope

FRESNO, California: More than 20,000 firefighters from across the United States on Friday (Sep 11) battled sprawling deadly wildfires up and down the West Coast as the arrival of cooler weather offered hope of a respite.

The true scale of the destruction from dozens of massive blazes in California, Oregon and Washington states remained hard to gauge, with 16 deaths confirmed so far this week, but wide stretches still cut off by flames.

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"We anticipate that number (of deaths) may potentially go up as we get back into areas that have been ravaged by flame and obviously, smoke begins to clear," warned California governor Gavin Newsom, as he visited a scorched forest near the raging North Complex Fire.

Ten people have been confirmed dead from that blaze in Butte County, which was driven at unprecedented pace toward the city of Oroville earlier in the week by strong, dry winds and soaring temperatures.

But Newsom said the weather "is beginning to cooperate," with winds settling down and some rain forecast in the coming days.

READ: Oregon fires destroy five towns, many deaths feared

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In neighbouring Oregon, where 1 million acres have burned and three people are reported dead with dozens still unaccounted for, governor Kate Brown also expressed hope a corner had been turned.

More than 40,000 Oregonians have fled their homes so far, with some 500,000 under evacuation warnings, Brown told a press conference – clarifying previous higher figures given by state officials.

"The weather system fueling these fires over the past few days has finally broken down," she said.

"We anticipate cooler air and moisture coming in the next few days, which is really good news."

Dozens of people remained missing in connection with the fires, specifically in Jackson, Lane and Marion counties, Brown said.

Earlier in the week, Brown warned that Oregon could expect to see a "great deal of loss, both in structures and in human lives."

READ: Fleeing California wildfires harder during COVID-19 pandemic

COMPLETE LOSS

The August Complex Fire this week became by far the biggest recorded blaze in Californian history, ripping through 746,000 acres of dry vegetation in the state's north, as multiple fires combined.

But it is just one of around 100 large fires on the US West Coast, and other rapidly growing blazes closer to populated areas have proven deadlier.

"We are at a complete loss for words right now," Bobbie Zedaker told the San Francisco Chronicle, after DNA tests proved her missing 16-year-old nephew was among those killed by the North Complex Fire.

Two more people were killed near the rural community of Happy Camp, a Cal Fire spokeswoman told AFP Friday.

But in a mountainous region of central California, close to where the Creek Fire is burning, some members of an indigenous community refused to leave their homes despite evacuation orders.

"I don't feel it's going to come this way," said James Hancock, 52, whose home on the Cold Springs Rancheria Indian Reservation currently has no light, electricity or water.

"The ancestors didn't have any of that and they were fine," he told AFP.

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