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Massive Wildfires Burn Out Of Control In Several Western States


As the South deals with hurricanes, people in the West are fighting dozens of wildfires. In Portland, Ore., people's cars are covered with a thin layer of ash. In Santa Clarita, Calif., people can see a glowing line of orange on the horizon. Fires are burning out of control in Montana, Washington and Colorado, too. We're going to talk now with Conrad Wilson of Oregon Public Broadcasting. Hi, Conrad.


SHAPIRO: Summer wildfires are not so unusual in Oregon. How severe is this compared to what you've seen before?

WILSON: Wildfires do happen every year in Oregon and throughout the West. But this amount of smoke is unusual here. The fire is just really close to the Portland metro area, which is also unusual.

SHAPIRO: How are firefighters doing in trying to contain this blaze?

WILSON: You know, it's been a real struggle. It is zero percent contained. And actually, last night, the fire merged with another fire that was already burning in the same area to become even bigger. And it's at a point where it's threatening Portland's water supply. That's kind of a big concern firefighters have had today. They're trying to protect the Portland area's drinking water.

SHAPIRO: I've heard people compare this to the famous Mount St. Helens eruption from the 1980s.

WILSON: Yeah. I mean, you know, there's a lot of ash in the Portland metro area. You know, it's on cars. And if you're driving around, it kind of kicks up. I don't know if it's, you know, quite as much as the St. Helens explosion, although I wasn't here for that. But it is something that, you know, is - has just become part of daily life. I mean schools have either cancelled or let out early. And health officials are saying, you know, don't spend that much time outside if you don't have to.

SHAPIRO: The fire is in the Columbia River Gorge. It's a place I used to go hiking every weekend - famous for its waterfalls. Describe the impact it could have there in the Gorge.

WILSON: So I'm in Troutdale, which is an eastern suburb of Portland right on the edge of the Columbia River Gorge. About 3,400 people here are in a low-level evacuation zone, and that means they need to be ready to leave if things get worse. But hundreds of others have been evacuated from towns and neighborhoods in the Gorge. You know, the fire is burning in this - as you mentioned, a really special place. It's incredibly beautiful - high-walled cliffs on either side of the Columbia River. It's a place where a lot of tourists go and, as you mentioned, people spend time camping.

SHAPIRO: I understand you spoke to an eyewitness who saw the fire start.

WILSON: Yeah. Police say it was started by a 15 year old from Vancouver, Wash., who was misusing fireworks. I did speak to an eyewitness who said that she watched this kid throw a firework off the trail. And the conditions here are just so dry. It didn't take long for the fire to start and then grow. This weekend, the fires spring up so quickly that 150 hikers who are on the same trail where the fire started were actually stuck overnight. And luckily they were rescued safely the next day.

SHAPIRO: As we've said, there are wildfires burning all over the West. What is the situation now in Montana, California, some of these other states that are fighting fires right now?

WILSON: In California, there's about 20 fires that are burning with something like 12,000 firefighters on the ground. As you mentioned, Montana, Idaho - other major fires that firefighters are dealing with across the West.

SHAPIRO: That's Conrad Wilson of Oregon Public Broadcasting. Thanks for speaking with us.

WILSON: You're welcome.