Firefighters are stretched as fires tear through California, Oregon and Washington.
As wildfires raged up and down the West Coast on Thursday, officials in Oregon said that one of the most destructive fires, which incinerated whole neighborhoods in two towns, may have been deliberately set.
Three law enforcement agencies in Oregon, including the Ashland Police Department and the State Police, said they had opened an arson investigation for the Almeda Fire, which has been linked to at least two deaths and destroyed roughly 600 homes in the towns of Talent and Phoenix.
Charred residential streets in those communities now resemble moonscapes, and the fire was still raging out of control on Thursday.
With firefighters struggling to contain the blazes, rescue workers made early forays into towns that had been blackened and hollowed out by fires. By Thursday evening, they had discovered at least 15 bodies, and hundreds of homes had been consumed by flames.
Bobbi Doan, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, said about 500,000 people in the state had been subject to evacuation orders.
“We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across our state,” said Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon, where 900,000 acres have burned.
Resources have been stretched thin, as firefighters from Washington and Oregon that had been deployed to California were sent home to fight blazes in their own backyards. As California continued to burn, with more than three million acres scorched, a record in modern history, fire crews were being rushed in from Utah, Colorado and Texas.
The August Complex Fire, sparked by a storm of lightning strikes last month, on Thursday became the largest fire in California history, having burned nearly 740 square miles.
To the north, more than 480,000 acres have burned in Washington State this week, with some communities essentially destroyed, officials said.
“Every firefighting entity in Washington State would like to have more resources right now,” Gov. Jay Inslee said at a news conference late Wednesday. He linked the devastating fire season to climate change, noting the West Coast’s intense heat waves, and invited skeptics to visit a string of badly burned towns: Bonney Lake, Graham, Malden, Okanogan.
In California, the fast-moving Bear Fire grew unabated as one of scores of wildfires across the state. The Bear Fire, burning near Chico, destroyed dozens of homes in Butte County, where 10 people were found dead, hitting the community of Berry Creek especially hard.
In addition to the deaths in Butte County, a 1-year-old boy was killed in the Cold Springs Fire in northern Washington, two deaths were linked to the Almeda Fire in Oregon, and two victims were discovered in a vehicle east of Salem, Ore., according to the county sheriff’s offices.
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A fire killed at least 10 people while racing through the California mountains.
Propelled by winds as strong as 45 miles an hour, the Bear Fire northeast of Oroville, Calif., has grown at explosive rates this week, causing 10 deaths as it ripped through mountain communities and forced thousands of people to evacuate.
The fire is still growing, but residents were already beginning on Thursday to learn of the damage across the 252,000 acres it has burned so far. Many will not have a home to return to.
Berry Creek, a community of about 1,200 people, is largely destroyed. On Wednesday afternoon, thick smoke hung over the area and only a handful of houses were still standing. The town’s fire station and its fire truck, parked beside it, were burned. Across the street, the elementary school was destroyed.
Capt. Derek Bell said on Thursday night that the Butte County Sheriff’s Office had found an additional seven victims and was still working to locate missing people.
The Bear Fire is part of the North Complex, which remains 0 percent contained and has destroyed or damaged about 2,000 structures, said Steve Kaufman, a spokesman for Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency.
Calmer winds had slowed its growth, giving officials some hope.
“Winds have decreased dramatically, and hopefully that will remain over the next few days,” said Scott McLean, a spokesman for Cal Fire.
Most Berry Creek residents evacuated the town in a panic early in the week as the fire charged toward them, with a narrow country road the only route to safety. More than 100 people had to be rescued Tuesday evening.
At least 200 structures in the town have been damaged, officials said, adding that they do not know the full extent of the destruction yet, and probably will not for several days.
Many other small mountain communities were also affected by the fire, Mr. McLean said.
Mayor Chuck Reynolds of Oroville told The Sacramento Bee on Wednesday that his city of roughly 20,000 people, which had been under an evacuation warning, had largely been spared by the fire.
Further south, the Creek Fire, near Fresno,…