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With wildfires raging during a pandemic, Oregon residents are pushed to the brink

In Oregon, more than a million acres have burned already during this devastating early wildfire season -- twice the full-year average. Over 40,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, and at least 22 are missing. Air quality in the area around Portland has been the worst in the world, prompting a spike in emergency room visits for respiratory issues. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We focus now on the terrible fires and devastation out in the Western part of the country and some of the factors that make this all worse.

    William Brangham will look at some of those reasons with Miles O'Brien shortly.

    But we're going to begin with an on-the-ground report from Oregon, where more than a million acres have burned, twice the average of most years. Search-and-rescue teams are continuing to look for missing people. At least 22 are missing so far, and more than 40,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.

    Special correspondent Cat Wise has our report, starting from south of Portland.

  • Cat Wise:

    The smoky streets of Molalla, Oregon, were eerily quiet this weekend. This rural town of 9,000, about 30 miles south of Portland, was under mandatory evacuations orders until Sunday night. The Riverside Fire has been threatening the community and other nearby towns for days.

    With firefighters stretched thin across the state, some residents have defied evacuation orders and have been battling sections of the fire line on their own.

    Over the weekend, we met up with a group of local volunteers on the outskirts of Molalla who were filling water trucks and driving them to the front lines, less than a mile up the road.

    Enoch Wilson, a local landowner, was one of those coordinating the efforts. He says he's grateful for the additional firefighting support the community has received over the past several days, but it was largely residents who kept the flames at bay before government help arrived.

  • Enoch Wilson:

    The only reason that this thing has even curbed whatsoever is because the locals and the farmers here on this hill and the volunteers around this area have come up, and they're actually digging the break lines themselves.

  • Gayla Hansen:

    I think we have a good right to be pissed. That fire burned. They could have put that thing out. We don't fight fires in Oregon. We need to fight them. We need to catch them right as they start.

  • Cat Wise:

    A spokesman for the Oregon Fire Marshal's Office said today that more than 20 firefighting teams are battling 11 fires across the state where existing resources are exceeded.

    While some in the community chose to remain and defend their property from the flames, many others in the region remain evacuated.

    The Elks Lodge in Milwaukie, Oregon, has become a safe haven for some of those evacuees. Around 100 people, including families with children, have been camped out here for the past few days. A local company served up hot pancakes. Other donations have flowed in from the community, including food, water, tents, and toys for the kids.

    Scott White, the current head of the lodge, has been coordinating relief efforts.

  • Scott White:

    Nobody knows what to do. They left their houses basically with whatever they had on their shoulders, and they just left town.

    You know, we have gone through the pandemic with COVID-19, and we thought we were seeing the bottom side of that and going back to normal. And then this happened.

  • Cat Wise:

    Thirty-three-year-old Tiffany Eatherton is one of the many struggling with the impacts from the wildfires and the pandemic. She lives in nearby Canby with her husband and four young children.

    When we met up with her, she was worn to the bone, after sleeping in a tent for the past two nights.

  • Tiffany Eatherton:

    I'm exhausted.

  • Cat Wise:

    She says the past six months have been difficult, with school closures, financial strains, and now evacuation.

  • Tiffany Eatherton:

    The second I sit down and I get a minute to take a deep breath, every worry throws itself at me, everything, from when my husband's going to go to work to what the next thing my kids are going to eat, to what's the next fit they're going to throw, to where we're going to drive next, or if we have to leave in the middle of the night or be able to go home and not find a fire at our doorstep the next day.

  • Jennifer Vines:

    I think people have been stretched so thin, to the breaking point.

  • Cat Wise:

    Dr. Jennifer Vines is the lead health officer for the region, which includes Portland and evacuated areas in Clackamas County. She says there has been a recent increase in the number of anxiety-related calls to the regional crisis center.

  • Jennifer Vines:

    People have called coronavirus unprecedented. People have now called this wildfire in our backyard unprecedented, the level of air quality, the poor air quality.

    We're sort of running out of adjectives to describe this point in time. And mixed in with all of this, in Portland in particular, and Multnomah County, has been a real reckoning around how we treat African American, Black, indigenous and people of color in this country.

    And those same groups suffer disproportionately from the poor air quality. They suffer disproportionately from COVID-19.

  • Cat Wise:

    As we spoke yesterday, visibility from the roof of the county health department in downtown Portland was about a quarter-of-a-mile.

    The region's air quality has been the worst in the world for several days.

  • Jennifer Vines:

    We are seeing an increase, a sharp increase, in emergency department visits for respiratory complaints, as we would expect with an air quality event like this.

    Many of those visits seem to be related to asthma and people directly relating their visit to the smoke.

  • Cat Wise:

    Dorian Zuniga is an outreach worker for the Portland nonprofit Transition Projects, which helps people experiencing homelessness find housing.

    Since last Thursday, the organization and others have handed out more than 26,000 N95 masks provided by the city and county.

  • Dorian Zuniga:

    Because of their lack of communication, with no radios, no phones, no Internet, being secluded away from people, they don't know what's going on. They don't know that this is not actual fog, this is smoke, and this is smoke from the fires.

    And, unfortunately, you know, that puts them in a bad position. Many clients are talking about heart, you know, pain in the chest, a little tightness in the chest, they can't breathe. Some of their tents are even filling up with smoke.

  • Cat Wise:

    Zuniga is encouraging people to escape the smoke and go to the Oregon Convention Center, where a large emergency wildfire shelter has been set up.

    But he says some people are concerned about going inside due to COVID-19.

    Back in Milwaukie at the Elks Lodge, evacuee Tiffany Eatherton and her family were loading up their car to go check on their home. They told us they expected it to be unscathed, but for so many other families, a haze of uncertainty still looms.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Oregon.

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