'I have never seen anything like this': Oregon towns emptied and confusion spreads amid fires

Hundreds of thousands of people in Oregon were ordered to leave their homes on Thursday as wildfires encroached on their properties. The evacuations clogged highways, emptied entire towns and sparked confusion in a state that has not grappled with wildfires of this size before.

Large-scale evacuations in the state began within the metropolitan area of Portland, Oregon’s largest city. Clackamas county, home to some 420,000 people in the metro’s south, was already under varying levels of fire alert when officials on Thursday afternoon told residents of the city of Molalla to leave.

From early afternoon, bumper-to-bumper traffic streamed north on state route 213 from Molalla towards Oregon City. The highway’s northbound lanes were clogged with RVs, trailers, trucks and smaller vehicles carrying tool boxes, luggage, trail bikes and horses.

The caravan was just one part of a half-million strong evacuation in a state confronted by the worst fire conditions in recent history, and, according to the governor, Kate Brown, the possibility of the worst fatalities and property damage on record.

In southbound lanes, meanwhile, dozens of local and state police cruisers, fire-and-rescue trucks and ambulances sped towards the town and the two megafires threatening its existence: the Riverside fire, which has burned 125,000 acres to the east of Mollala, and the deadly Beechie Creek fire, which has incinerated more than 182,000 acres, mostly in neighboring Marion county, while killing at least two, and destroying the lakeside town of Detroit.

An orange smoke-filled sky is seen above Molalla, Oregon on Thursday as fires burn nearby.
An orange smoke-filled sky is seen above Molalla, Oregon on Thursday as fires burn nearby. Photograph: Deborah Bloom/AFP/Getty Images

Fire officials expressed concern that the two great fires might merge, after unsafe conditions forced firefighters to disengage from the Riverside blaze around 2pm. At that time it was just two miles from Estacada, fifteen miles north-east of Molalla, at the foot of Mount Hood.

When the evacuation order came, even Molalla’s fire department was forced to leave town. By 3pm they were setting up a makeshift staging ground at the elementary school in Mulino, five miles north of their home base.

As administrators were busy organizing their new headquarters, fire engines and volunteers’ pickup trucks continued to arrive, bearing members of the mostly volunteer force – some with faces caked with soot and grime from their encounters with the fires.

Also there in force were the black and white cruisers of the Oregon state police. As intense planning discussions took place in the school’s car park, officers and tired volunteers unloaded bottled water and energy drinks donated by a stream of arriving locals and well-wishers.

At the fringes of the action stood Tony Mann, the superintendent of the Molalla River school district, whose school became a temporary firehouse from Thursday afternoon. He said that although he had only received the request an hour before firefighters started arriving, he was happy to help.

Although he had already evacuated from the area, he came back to give firefighters access to the school, he said. He added: “As a school district, we’re about how do we support our communities once first responders have done their jobs”.

Describing himself as a “lifelong resident” of Clackamas county, he said of the fires: “I have never seen anything like this in my life”.

David Scuito, a Molalla firefighter, agreed: “We have dealt with smaller fires in season, but never to this scale.”

Of the parade of cars passing north past the school’s entrances, he said: “It’s a good sign. Police are getting everyone out of here.”

Volunteers with the Portland mutual aid group PDX Witches deliver donated supplies to a fire command center on Thursday in Molalla.
Volunteers with the Portland mutual aid group PDX Witches deliver donated supplies to a fire command center on Thursday in Molalla. Photograph: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

The spirit of cooperation was not felt universally, however.

As in other western towns, fear, uncertainty and disinformation gripped Molalla ahead of the evacuation.

In preceding days, Facebook pages associated with the town were filled with rumors of looters and Antifa raids. On its Facebook page overnight, Molalla police were forced to amend an earlier call for residents to report suspicious activity.

“This is about possible looters, not antifa or setting of fires,” the edit read. “There has been NO antifa in town as of this posting at 02am. Please, folks, stay calm and use common sense.”

The effects of this disinformation were dangerously evident on the ground.

On Thursday afternoon, three journalists were confronted by men with AR-15s and summarily ordered to leave Molalla. One of them, Sergio Olmos, who was on assignment for Oregon Public Broadcasting, said that the orders were given by the men – apparently civilians – without explanations or identification.

Further afield, other men with similar sympathies appeared to be on patrol. Although few vehicles were left in Mulino save those belonging to emergency services, on the trip there and again on back roads en route to Oregon City, men in trucks bearing thin blue line flags – a badge of membership for rightwing movements – were observed in states of hypervigilance. Some appeared to be noting the faces and number plates of passersby.

Others sent horn honks and supportive gestures towards trucks bearing similar regalia.

By late afternoon, more of the county, including southern parts of Oregon City, had been subjected to evacuation orders. Although Mulino and Molalla remained eerily empty, the highways and bridges leading over the Willamette River into Portland were at a virtual standstill around 5pm, as a large proportion of Clackamas county residents fled the wildfires.

While they queued at the gateways to Portland, that city’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, declared that city was in a state of fire emergency, and closed all city-owned outdoor areas, while opening evacuation sites for fire victims.

Wheeler’s move on Thursday evening underlined the fact that the fires, which had wholly consumed several rural, mountain towns, were now reaching into the west’s largest cities.