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South Oregon Deals With Wildfires' Aftermath

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Nearly two dozen people are missing as more than 35 wildfires continue to burn across the state of Oregon. Damage assessments are trickling in. In some cases, the firefighters themselves are discovering their homes have been destroyed. Some of the worst damage has been near the city of Eugene, so joining us now from Eugene is Rachael McDonald, news director at the member station there, KLCC.

Hey, Rachael.

RACHAEL MCDONALD, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: So give us a snapshot. There are so many fires burning in the state right now. What kind of progress have firefighters been able to make?

MCDONALD: Well, they've been able to make some progress. The bigger fires, which stretch from just outside Portland all the way south to the California border - they're at between 5- and 15% containment, so it's progress but slow progress. And statewide, you know, more than 40,000 people are under some kind of evacuation notice. About half of those people are evacuated by this big fire closest to Eugene. It's about 30 miles west of here, and they've tripled the number of people fighting it since last week. But Eric Perkins, one of the leaders on that fire, says its huge size makes it really difficult.

ERIC PERKINS: It's a long linear distance there, so we just haven't got to everything - limited resources with this many fires on the landscape. We're doing what we can with what we have.

KELLY: What can you tell us about how destructive that fire has been already?

MCDONALD: Well, we've been told most of the community of Blue River has been destroyed, including the fire station for that small community of about 800 people. Much of the McKenzie River Corridor remains under the highest level evacuation order. But the local sheriff has eased some orders in the area, like those that are near neighboring Springfield, which is pretty close to Eugene.

KELLY: These fires have been burning more than a week. Have people been able to get into areas that burned through and find out whether their homes survived?

MCDONALD: Some have. But including the chief of the upper McKenzie rural district, Chief Christiana Rainbow Plews, also known as Chief Rainbow - we heard from her son Kiger that she was able to check on her house.

KIGER PLEWS: And she got told before she drove by that it was not fine. Both the houses were completely gone - nothing left but rubble and ash. She said she cried. She said she puked. She hugged people, and then she went right back out to do it again.

KELLY: And tell me about the smoke, the air quality. The skies here in D.C. are hazy today. The sun has dimmed, and that is smoke that has blown across from the western fires. How bad is it where you are?

MCDONALD: Yeah, I'm sorry it's already getting over to you. Yeah, it's still hazardous here in Eugene and across the state as it has been for more than a week. Health officials say people should stay indoors, but that's not so easy for people who are homeless. You know, cities and counties are scrambling to open overnight shelters to help people get relief from that hazardous air.

KELLY: Yeah, and any relief in sight? I'm sure you all are praying for rain.

MCDONALD: We sure are. There is rain in the forecast for later this week, and that could certainly help improve air quality. The thing is that rain could also bring thunderstorms, which could spark new fires. And, of course, we're hoping that won't happen.

KELLY: Rachael McDonald, news director of member station KLCC in Eugene, Ore.

Thank you, Rachael.

MCDONALD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.