Oregon went to the surprising step of replacing its state fire marshal as devastating wildfires continued to spread across the West Coast on Saturday.
Mariana Ruiz-Temple was thrust into the role of Oregon state fire marshal after Jim Walker was placed on administrative leave for unspecified reasons, according to Oregon State Police Superintendent Travis Hampton, who made the appointment. Walker submitted his resignation after being placed on leave, Portland ABC affiliate KATU reported.
While no reason for the switch was given, Ruiz-Temple immediately steps into a historic fire season. More than a million acres have already burned across Oregon and deaths from the recent spate of fires crossed into double digits Saturday.
“Mariana is assuming this position as Oregon is in an unprecedented crisis which demands an urgent response,” Hampton said in a statement. “This response and the circumstances necessitated a leadership change. I have the absolute confidence in Mariana to lead OSFM operations through this critical time. She it tested, trusted and respected — having the rare combination of technical aptitude in field operations and administration.”
The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office reported Saturday afternoon that three more bodies had been found among rubble from the Almeda Fire, bringing the total number of deaths attributed to the fire to five. A 41-year-old homeless man was arrested on Friday for setting one of two fires that merged into the Almeda Fire.
The fire has delivered unprecedented destruction to the communities of Medford, Phoenix, Talent and Ashland.
“I’m totally overwhelmed at the enormity of this disaster and it must be horribly difficult to lose everything as happened to thousands of people. I want to do all we can to help,” Ashland Mayor John Stromberg wrote in a letter to residents. “The road to recovery is going to be long; this is an ultra-marathon and though many want to start out sprinting we can’t sustain it, so we have to pace ourselves in order to rebuild lives, homes, and businesses with care and compassion.”
Ten people have been killed in the recent Oregon wildfires in total.
Four of those deaths, including a 13-year-old boy and his grandmother, came in the Beachie Creek Fire, which grew to more than 186,000 acres on Saturday. More than 30,000 structures, including tens of thousands of homes, are under either Level 2 or 3 evacuation orders due to the fire. Level 2 orders indicate people should be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice, while Level 3 evacuation zones should leave immediately.
Oregon fire officials are also dealing with the 130,000-acre Riverside Fire at 0% containment and Lionshead Fire at 138,000 acres and just 5% containment.
As Oregon deals with a shift in command, California is dealing with a never-before-seen scope of destruction.
Uncontained fires have scorched more than 2.8 million acres of land currently, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The 3.2 million acres burned so far this fire season are 27 times more than in 2019 at this date. The August Complex Fire is now the largest in state history, while three other fires this season rank in the top 10 all-time, according to the department.
Eleven people have died in the California fires, bringing the total number of deaths across Washington (one), Oregon (10) and California to 22 total.
Cal Fire is dealing with three fires over 85,000 acres and 25% contained or less: the August Complex Fire, North Complex Fire and Creek Fire. The August Complex Fire stands at a staggering 846,000 acres, or 1,322 square miles — larger than the entire state of Rhode Island.
“Grateful for the brave firefighters and first responders who are on the frontlines battling these historic fires. Stay safe,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted Saturday.
East of Los Angeles, firefighters are dealing with the Bobcat Fire, which stands just shy of 30,000 acres and only 6% containment. The fire left trails of smoke over the beaches of Southern California hotspots.
“I would say this is the thickest I’ve ever seen it — and I grew up here,” Danny Lodolo, of Arcadia, northeast of downtown LA, told Los Angeles ABC station KABC. “Any sitting water is full of ash — lawn furniture, lawns, gardens — full of ash.”
“When you wake up in the morning you can smell smoke in your house, which normally doesn’t happen,” he added. “We’re used to having fires and that’s not something that’s happened before.”
Fires up and down the West Coast have caused dangerous smoke conditions, including in major cities. Air quality index levels, measured by the Environmental Protection Agency on a scale of zero to 500, are in unhealthy levels from Seattle (198) to Portland (417) to San Francisco (165) to Los Angeles (148). Portland’s air quality is currently the worst in the world.
President Donald Trump announced he would make a visit to McClellan Park in Sacramento County on Monday to meet with local and federal firefighters and emergency officials.
“Since mid-August, President Trump and Governor Newsom have spoken by phone and the White House and FEMA have remained in constant contact with State and local officials throughout the response to these natural disasters,” the White House said in a statement. “The President continues to support those who are battling raging wildfires in a locally-executed, state-managed, and federally-supported emergency response.”
Trump has repeatedly blamed California and Newsom’s mismanagement for increased wildfires, pointing to the state not properly cleaning up broken trees or dry leaves, though he’s given no proof and scientists say climate change plays a larger role. He’s even threatened to withhold federal funding on multiple occasions.
Trump and Newsom, who used to be married to Donald Trump Jr.’s current girlfriend, have sparred over a number of topics in recent months and years. Last year, in response to Trump’s tweets on California’s wildfire mismanagement, Newsom responded, “You don’t believe in climate change. You are excused from this conversation.”
ABC News’ David Herndon and Cammeron Parrish contributed to this report.
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