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Western fire crews grapple with resource shortages, misinformation in addition to flames

Across the fire zone of the American West, hundreds of thousands of residents are being evacuated, and entire towns have burned to ashes. In Oregon, merging blazes are now approaching the Portland suburbs. Dozens of people are missing, and firefighters are stretched to the limit, challenged even more by the pandemic. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports and joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fire crews in the West are finally getting help this evening from slowing winds and rising humidity.

    But a wave of wildfires has already claimed up to 24 lives across Oregon, Washington, and Northern California. In Oregon alone, half-a-million people have had to flee and dozens are missing.

    Special correspondent Cat Wise reports from Salem, Oregon.

  • Cat Wise:

    Early this morning, a team of firefighters gathered for a moment of silence in remembrance of 9/11, and then began discussing their plan of attack on the Beachie Creek Fire, which has burned more than 180,000 acres and destroyed a number of small towns.

    These firefighters, commanders, and support staff are one of the many incident management teams that assemble during wildfire season to battle blazes throughout the West. Late Monday night, as winds picked up across the region, a fire broke out around their incident command post in the small town of Gates, Oregon.

    As the fire quickly spread, the group, which totaled about 380, many of whom were staying in tents and campers outside the post, began a battle to save their own building.

  • Randall Rishe:

    As I walked out of the incident command post behind the building, the huge field that was behind it was completely engulfed in flames.

  • Cat Wise:

    Randall Rishe is the public information officer for the team.

  • Randall Rishe:

    The wind was blowing. The embers were flying everywhere. Trees were coming down, electrified wires all over the place, roads impassable, and have firefighters having to take chain saws and buck those logs and get them out of the way, so we could pass through.

    And everybody was able to work through that in a very dynamic and difficult situation without any recorded injuries. It's quite amazing.

  • Cat Wise:

    Rishe and many others lost personal belongings. Some are still wearing the same clothes they had on Monday night. More significantly, the team lost critical gear and equipment.

  • Randall Rishe:

    Inside the incident command post, we have I.T. equipment, communication equipment, printers to make huge maps, so we can have morning briefings.

    We have audiovisual equipment for the public information staff. All of the information that is associated with an incident are kept on thumb drives and hard drives, all of which were lost.

  • Cat Wise:

    Despite all those losses, the team managed to reassemble by the next evening at this new command post in Salem.

    John Spencer is one of the group's leaders. This is his 36th year fighting fires.

  • John Spencer:

    The resources are thin. And so, to get out on the line and have enough coverage, we don't. And so we are doing — setting our priorities and meeting the fire where it forces our hand at certain communities, and trying to engage, so that we can protect life and property.

    Having your command center burned to the ground and having to evacuate that area under a very stressful situation was very — for many of us, never — has never happened before. And so — and then the fire activity that we saw and how it's expanded to such a large scale in — over the whole state of Oregon and the Northwest, kind of shocking to all of us that have been around a while.

  • Cat Wise:

    Across Oregon, about a million acres have been set ablaze, and about half-a-million people have been ordered to evacuate, roughly one in 10 residents.

    The city of Portland has declared a state of emergency as fires bore down on surrounding suburbs. Crews around the state have been navigating exceedingly difficult conditions. Unpredictable weather patterns change fire lines by the minute. State officials estimate they need twice as many firefighters on the ground as they have now.

  • Man:

    Oh, my God.

  • Cat Wise:

    At the same time, there are fears some residents are not heeding evacuation orders, spurred in part by conspiracy theories and misinformation circulating online. Local police departments have had to squash rumors fires were caused by arsonists on both the far left and far right.

    Meanwhile, in California, the North Complex Fire which exploded in size earlier this week, has become the state's deadliest of the year. The fire has wreaked havoc in small towns across Butte County, which was also the site of California's deadliest fire ever, the 2018 Camp Fire, which claimed 85 lives.

  • Woman:

    There's a lot of folks up here that went through the Camp Fire and other fires that lost their place and — or had to be evacuated for a month. They're really traumatized from this fire.

  • Cat Wise:

    In Berry Creek, a small town of about 500, fires left little behind but rubble and twisted metal. And authorities fear the devastation in places like this means the death toll will likely go up.

    Back in Salem, the team here planned to take advantage of a change in weather today to finally make some progress on containing the Beachie Creek Fire. They will have six more days before their two-week shift is over. Then they will be off for two days, and back on the fire lines.

    Forecasters say they are hoping for cooler air and moisture over the coming days, which would really help firefighters — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Cat, tell us a little more about the concern about fire crews right now, the worry about resources and people power.

  • Cat Wise:

    Yes, that's right, Judy.

    Randall Rishe, who you saw in the piece, he told us today that they're really trying to provide a lot of support to the firefighters on the lines and the team members who went through this difficult firefighting experience we highlighted in our story.

    But many of those team members have family and friends who are evacuated currently. And it's really taking a toll on them as they're fighting these fires.

    And, of course, as you know, COVID is a big concern these days. And it is complicating all these firefighting efforts. Normally, at a fire camp like this, you would have large teams working together in one room. At this command post, they have broken those teams up into smaller rooms to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But everyone is just trying to do the best they can during this really difficult time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as if things weren't difficult enough, Cat, you mentioned in your report authorities are trying to stop the spread of rumors about the cause of the fires.

    What are people telling you about that?

  • Cat Wise:

    Judy, over the last couple of days, we have talked to several dozen people.

    And some people did tell us that they believe that the fires had been set by politically motivated people. One gentleman told me there's just no way that all of these fires could have been set by natural causes.

    But what's really important to know, Judy, is that, over the last couple of days, national and local authorities have come out strongly and said that there is no basis for those claims. And they're really trying to get word out that people should trust only local officials, state officials for information about these fires.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, to be dealing with that, as we said, on top of everything else, makes it so much more complicated.

    Cat Wise reporting for us from Oregon.

    Thank you, Cat.

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