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Hazardous air, mass casualty, misinformation as fires blaze in Oregon

Tens of thousands of people in Oregon have evacuated as wildfires continue to blaze across parts of California and the Pacific Northwest. Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter Emily Cureton joins Christopher Booker to discuss the latest on rescue efforts in the state and how misinformation on social media is undermining efforts.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker spoke with Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter Emily Cureton earlier today for the latest on the continuing fire crisis.

  • Chris Booker:

    What is the status of the fires and what is the status of the evacuation?

  • Emily Cureton:

    The danger is not over.

    Today, half a million people in Oregon are under some level of evacuation notice. About 40,000 people have been told to leave their homes. But the majority of those have been told to pack a bag and get ready to go. So this includes communities not far from Portland and in southern Oregon we're also braced for a harrowing couple of days. Towns that have already burned are now under a red flag warning again. And there's high winds expected in that part of the state.

  • Chris Booker:

    A red flag warning because there's an expectation or an anticipation that the fires may return.

  • Emily Cureton:

    Conditions are prime for extreme fire activity.

  • Chris Booker:

    And while this is happening, there seems to be a quite a bit of misinformation or missing information. Tell me about what people know and how people are making decisions.

  • Emily Cureton:

    It's very difficult right now. Yesterday, I spoke with people who had fled the holiday farm fire, one of dozens burning throughout the state, and they fled their homes in the middle of the night last week. And here we are six days later and they did not know the extent of damage to their communities or where unaccounted people were, if they were missing, if they had escaped, or if they had been caught in the fires. So that is something that's been really hard for survivors and for responders.

    And we're also seeing misinformation on social media take the form of rumors. And this has wasted law enforcement resources, specifically Facebook community groups, with residents in areas that have been hit by the fires. People are posting things like that ANTIFA set the fires. OPB spoke with officials. There's absolutely no evidence to support this, but it hasn't stopped people from setting up roadblocks around towns or checking who's coming in and out of some of these burned communities. In fact, one of OPB's own reporters was stopped by armed vigilantes trying to access Molalla, Oregon.

  • Chris Booker:

    The governor has also told the state to brace for a mass casualty event. Has there been any updates about just how many people have died? And if not, has that warning continued?

  • Emily Cureton:

    Yeah, we are braced for a high death toll. The governor of Oregon, Kate Brown, has said this is likely to be the most substantial loss of life and property from fire in the state's history. And again, it's not like the immediate danger is over. So search and rescue efforts have been slowed, firefighters and emergency responders they spent this weekend in survival mode and have not yet pivoted to recovery.

  • Chris Booker:

    The pandemic is still going on. Where are people being sent or are they outside or they in tents? Are they collecting in gyms?

  • Emily Cureton:

    What we're seeing at evacuation points set up around the state is people who have the ability to remain in a vehicle or camp around their vehicle are doing that. And people who absolutely have nowhere else to go or don't have a family to go and see, they're being referred to hotel rooms as they're available. The problem is there just aren't enough available hotel rooms in the immediate area of the evacuated communities.

  • Chris Booker:

    What is the air quality like currently in Oregon?

  • Emily Cureton:

    It's terrible. The smoke is blanketing the entire state right now and making it hard to breathe. I don't go outside without wearing a respirator right now and all of Oregon and Washington have unhealthy air. The particulate is so dense, it's considered either very unhealthy to hazardous or even above the levels for hazardous. So it's literally off the charts. Bad to breathe outside right now.

  • Chris Booker:

    What are the people you've spoken with who have evacuated? What are they saying to you?

  • Emily Cureton:

    The people I've spoken with in the immediate aftermath of fleeing were just traumatized. I mean, and these are people that live in fire prone communities. So people have seen this before. And what was different about the fire storm of Monday night was how fast it moved.

  • Chris Booker:

    What are the next steps?

  • Emily Cureton:

    The next week is going to continue to be an uphill battle for firefighters. President Trump approved an emergency federal declaration Thursday that will supplement state resources. Keep in mind, Oregon's budget already took a major hit from revenue loss due to the pandemic. And the state already has a pretty notorious housing shortage. So this makes everything really uncertain now, especially for people who lost their rentals and mobile homes.

    We know at this point that those mobile homes along rivers have been decimated. On the optimistic side of things, the weather this weekend did improve. And the wildfires grew more slowly. Oregon Governor Kate Brown has said we still have a long way to go, though, and that some large fires that have merged to create mega fires are likely to burn until we get full rain.

  • Chris Booker:

    Emily Cureton from OPB, thank you so much for joining us.

  • Emily Cureton:

    You're very welcome.

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