Sixteen dead in US wildfires as officials say toll could rise

US officials warned Friday of potential “mass” fatalities as more than 20,000 firefighters from across the country battled sprawling deadly wildfires up and down the West Coast.

A prediction of cooler weather offered some hope of respite in coming days, but the true scale of the destruction from dozens of massive blazes in California, Oregon and Washington states remained hard to gauge.

There were 16 deaths confirmed this week, with wide stretches of land still cut off by flames.

“We’re preparing for a mass fatality incident based on what we know and the number of structures that have been lost,” warned Andrew Phelps, director of the office of emergency management in Oregon on Friday.

Oregon defines “mass fatality incident” as one that causes death and suffering which cannot be met by usual individual or community resources, according to the Washington Post.

“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 neighboring Oregon, where one million acres (400,000 hectares) 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 around half a million 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, Brown said.

Even as the weather forecast offered hope, Newsom painted a grim picture of California as the canary in the climate-change coal mine.

“I’m a little bit exhausted that we have to continue to debate this issue,” he said in televised comments as he toured the damage. “This is a climate damn emergency. This is real, and it’s happening.

“This is the perfect storm.”

He added: “California, folks, is America fast-forward. What we’re experiencing right here is coming to communities all across the United States of America unless we get our act together on climate change, unless we disabuse ourselves of all the BS that’s been spewed by a very small group of people.” (AFP | Javier TOVAR)

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