Wildfire smoke that posed a health hazard to millions choked the west coast of the US as firefighters battled deadly blazes that obliterated some towns and displaced tens of thousands of people.

The death toll from the fires in California, Oregon and Washington stood at 31 and was expected to rise sharply. Most of the fatalities were in California and Oregon.

Oregon’s emergency management director said officials were preparing for a possible “mass fatality event” if many more bodies turn up in the ash. And the state fire marshal resigned after abruptly being placed on administrative leave. The state police superintendent said the crisis demanded an urgent response that required a leadership change.

Those who still had homes were not safe in them. Half a million Oregonians were under evacuation warnings or orders to leave. With air contamination levels at historic highs, people stuffed towels under doors to keep smoke out. Some even wore N95 masks in their own homes.

Some communities resembled the bombed-out cities of Europe after the second world war, with buildings reduced to charred rubble piled atop blackened earth. If residents did not manage to flee as the flames closed in, they perished.

Millicent Catarancuic’s body was found near a car on her 2ha (five-acre) property in Berry Creek, California. The flames came so quickly she did not have time to get out. On Tuesday, she packed several of her dogs and cats in the car but later called her daughter to say she had decided to stay. Firefighters had made progress battling the blaze. The wind was calm. The flames still seemed far away. Then they rushed onto the property. “I feel like, maybe when they passed, they had an army of cats and dogs with her to help her through it,” said her daughter, Holly Catarancuic.

In Oregon alone, more than 40,000 people have been evacuated and about 500,000 are in different levels of evacuation zones, according to the governor, Kate Brown.

Thick smoke obscures the Fremont Bridge in Portland, Oregon



Thick smoke obscures the Fremont Bridge in Portland, Oregon. Photograph: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Fires along Oregon’s Cascade mountain range grew on Saturday, but at a slower rate than earlier in the week, when strong easterly winds acted like a bellows, pushing two large fires – at Beachie Creek and Riverside – towards each other and the state’s big population centres, including Portland’s south-eastern suburbs. Fire managers did have a spot of good news: Higher humidity slowed the flames considerably.

In California, a total of 28 active large fires have burned 1,1330 sq km (4,375 sq miles), and 16,000 firefighters are trying to suppress the flames, said Cal Fire’s assistant deputy director, Daniel Berlant. Large wildfires continued to burn in north-eastern Washington state too. In all, 22 people have died in California since wildfires began breaking out across the state in mid-August.

Donald Trump will visit California on Monday for a briefing on the ires, the White House announced. The Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, and the governors of California, Oregon and Washington state – all Democrats – have said the fires are a consequence of global heating. “We absolutely must act now to avoid a future defined by an unending barrage of tragedies like the one American families are enduring across the west today,” Biden said.

The same smoke that painted California skies orange also helped crews corral the state’s deadliest blaze of the year by blocking the sun, reducing temperatures and raising humidity, officials said. Smoke created cooler conditions in Oregon, too, but it was also blamed for making the dirtiest air in at least 35 years in some places. The air quality index reading on Saturday morning in Salem, the state capital, was 512. The scale normally goes from zero to 500. “Above 500 is literally off the charts,” said Laura Gleim, a spokesperson for the Oregon department of environmental quality. Because past air quality was rarely so poor, the government’s yardstick for measuring it capped out at 500, Gleim said. The department started monitoring air quality in 1985.

The weather conditions that led up to the fires and fed the flames were probably a once-in-a-generation event, said Greg Jones, a professor and research climatologist at Linfield University in McMinnville, Oregon.

A large high-pressure area stretching from the desert south-west to Alaska brought strong winds from the east towards the west coast, reducing relative humidity to as low as 8% and bringing desert-like conditions, even to the coast, Jones said. Instead of the offshore flows that the Pacific Northwest normally enjoys, the strong easterly winds pushed fires down the western slopes of the Cascade Range. It isn’t clear if global heating caused the conditions, Jones said, but a warmer world can increase the likelihood of extreme events and contribute to their severity.

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