‘Evacuate now:’ Wildfires grow in Oregon as 500K flee

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Desiree Pierce cries as she visits her home destroyed by the Almeda Fire, Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in Talent, Ore. "I just needed to see it, to get some closure," said Pierce. (AP Photo/John Locher)

(AP) – Hundreds of firefighters battled two large wildfires Friday that threatened to merge near the most populated part of Oregon, including the suburbs of Portland, and the governor said dozens of people are missing in other parts of the state.

The state's emergency management director, Andrew Phelps, said officials are “preparing for a mass fatality event” and that thousands of structures have been destroyed.

Gov. Kate Brown said more than 40,000 Oregonians have been evacuated and about 500,000 are in different levels of evacuation zones, either having been told to leave or to prepare to do so. She was dialing back on a statement late Thursday issued by the state Office of Emergency Management that said a half-million people had been ordered to evacuate statewide.

Dozens of people are missing in Jackson County in the south and Marion County, where a fire continues to burn east of Salem, Brown told a news conference Friday. Also Friday, authorities announced that a man had been arrested on two counts of arson for allegedly starting a fire in southern Oregon on Tuesday.

The Oregon Convention Center in Portland was among the buildings being transformed into shelters for evacuees. Portland, shrouded in smoke from the fires, on Friday had the worst air quality of the world's major cities, according to IQAir.

National Guard troops and corrections officers transferred about 1,300 inmates from a women’s prison in a southern suburb of Portland “out of an abundance of caution,” the Oregon Department of Corrections said. Spokeswoman Vanessa Vanderzee said it took 20 hours to transfer the inmates Thursday to another prison in a safe zone.

A change in the weather, with winds dropping and shifting direction and humidity rising, greatly helped firefighters struggling to prevent the two fires from advancing farther west into more-populated areas.

“The wind laid down quite a bit for us yesterday. There also wasn’t that strong eastern wind that was pushing the fire more to the west," said Stefan Myers of the state's fire information team.