By Brad Brooks
MOLALLA, Ore., Sept 17 (Reuters) - With resources stretched to the limit, weary crews fought to make progress on Thursday against deadly wildfires sweeping the western United States, with a U.S. senator who toured hard-hit Oregon saying it looked like the aftermath of World War Two firebombings.
Scores of fires have burned some 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) in California since mid-August and another 1.6 million acres (647,500 hectares) in Oregon and Washington state since Labor Day on Sept. 7, laying waste to several small towns, destroying thousands of homes and claiming at least 34 lives.
U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon described driving 600 miles (965 km) in his state to get a firsthand look at the devastation, visiting refugee centers, fire control centers and towns burned by the blazes.
"That 600 miles, I never got out of the smoke. I remember fires in the past where I was driving and I would be in the smoke for 20 or 30 minutes - that's a big fire. This is apocalyptic," Merkley told CNN. "To see ... these towns burnt to the ground, it looks like a World War Two town hit by firebombing - thousands of homes destroyed, residences destroyed."
Merkley said a lot of affordable housing was lost, including apartment buildings and mobile home parks, while some commercial districts were burned to the ground.
"It's overwhelming," the Democratic senator added.
The West Coast wildfires have filled the region's skies with smoke and soot.
Air quality along portions of the western U.S. coastline, from Olympic National Park in Washington state to San Francisco, was the clearest in days on Thursday. Smoke levels abated enough on Wednesday that environmental agencies lifted an air quality advisory for coastal Oregon and southeastern Washington.
Several miles (km) inland, air in the Oregon cities of Portland, Salem and Bend still registered as "hazardous" on Thursday, according to a state air quality tracking site.
Kyle Sullivan, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Medford, Oregon, said the clearing smoke has allowed more firefighting to take place in the air with helicopters and planes dropping retardant. "We haven't seen a lot of significant fire growth (this week). It hasn't been super windy or super hot," Sullivan said.
The Oregonian newspaper reported on Thursday that local residents said one of Oregon's largest wildfires, the Holiday Farm Fire, was preceded by a power outage, a loud explosion and a shower of blue sparks from an electric line near where the blaze began. Authorities have not yet given an official cause for the fire, which has burned some 170,000 acres (68,800 hectares) since Labor Day.
Oregon is unaccustomed to the size and number of blazes that it has been experiencing, which have gained ground due to drought conditions and high winds. With improved weather finally enabling fire crews to take the offensive, crews have worked to beat back the state's largest blaze this season - the 190,000-acre (76,900-hectare) Beachie Creek fire. It was 20% contained as of Thursday morning.
Simultaneous fires along the West Coast have stretched the resources of Oregon, California and Washington state to their limit, particularly in Oregon, where fires rarely affect the normally rainfall-rich Cascade Mountains as they have this year.
Eight deaths have been confirmed in Oregon. Nearly 4,000 evacuees remained displaced, according to the American Red Cross. In California, authorities said 17,000 firefighters were battling 25 major fires on Wednesday, as the state's death toll stood at 25. One fire-related fatality has been confirmed in Washington state.
Nearly 8,000 homes and other structures have been destroyed by fires in the three states.
(Reporting by Brad Brooks and Deborah Bloom in Portland; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter, Mimi Dwyer and Sharon Bernstein; Writing by Will Dunham; editing by Jonathan Oatis)