Unprecedented Fire Ravages California, Oregon, and Washington

from NY Times

Wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington State have killed at least seven people, and there are growing fears more have died in towns that have been destroyed.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington State have killed seven people, with fears more have died in towns destroyed throughout the West.

Oregon is approaching 900,000 acres burned across the state, Gov. Kate Brown said. In the past 10 years, the state has seen an average of 500,000 acres burned every year.

Stark pictures showed entire neighborhoods in Oregon incinerated, looking more like moonscapes. Satellite images revealed burn scars that could be seen from space, and clouds of smoke that covered much of the Northwest. Frantic residents feared for the safety of loved ones they could not reach.

Wildfires were burning up and down the West Coast on Thursday, having forced mass evacuations and leaving the authorities with harrowing decisions on where to send fire teams as disasters hemmed them in.

As firefighters struggled to contain the blazes, rescue workers made early forays into towns that had been blackened and hollowed out by fires. By Thursday, they had discovered at least seven bodies, and hundreds of homes had been consumed by flames.

“We have never seem 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 2.5 million acres scorched so far, 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.

Maps showing the major fires are burning in the western states are available here.

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 three people were found dead, and the community of Berry Creek was hit especially hard.

In addition to the three people found dead in Butte County, a 1-year-old boy was killed in the Cold Springs Fire in northern Washington, one person was killed near Ashland, Ore., and two victims were discovered in a vehicle east of Salem, Ore., according to the county sheriff’s offices.

The fairgrounds in Clackamas County, Ore., served as an evacuation center for people fleeing the wildfires.

The fairgrounds in Clackamas County, Ore., served as an evacuation center for people fleeing the wildfires.Credit…Kristina Barker for The New York Times

Towns were wiped out in Oregon, and some Portland suburbs are now under threat.

Extreme fire weather conditions are expected west of the Cascades in Oregon through Thursday, officials said, driving forward blazes that have already destroyed hundreds of homes in the state.

Evacuations expanded in the southern suburbs of Portland overnight, with all of the 418,000 residents of Clackamas County now under some level of evacuation warning and at least half of the county under a mandatory evacuation order.

Six homes and six other structures have already been lost to the flames, the county said, and 400 more structures remained threatened by the fires.

The Almeda fire, which ripped through the communities of Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon earlier this week, forced new evacuations on Wednesday in the city of Medford, the state’s eighth-largest city with about 80,000 residents.

The town of Berry Creek, Calif., was largely destroyed by wildfire.

The town of Berry Creek, Calif., was largely destroyed by wildfire.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

In Phoenix, the mayor estimated that 1,000 homes had been wiped out by the blazes. In Talent, just a few miles south, hundreds more homes were destroyed. “Everything is completely gone,” said Sandra Spelliscy, Talent’s city manager.

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 three 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.

The Bear Fire, which is part of the North Complex, is still almost completely uncontained on its western flank, but calmer winds have 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, the state firefighting agency,

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.

Royle Hehr sorted through the remains of his home in Malden, Wash., on Wednesday.

Royle Hehr sorted through the remains of his home in Malden, Wash., on Wednesday.Credit…Rajah Bose for The New York Times

Further south, the Creek Fire, near Fresno, remained completely uncontained, growing to more than 175,000 acres by Thursday morning. Thousands of people evacuated their homes, emergency teams searched for injured survivors and the U.S. Forest Service closed all 18 national forests in California, fearing that people could become trapped in the parks.

The wildfires that ripped through eastern and central Washington this week devastated communities, killing a 1-year-old and leaving the boy’s parents with third-degree burns.

Among the hardest-hit places was the old railroad town of Malden, where deputies rushed through the streets and screamed for residents to flee as the flames roared toward town. By Tuesday afternoon, most of the town’s homes were destroyed, along with City Hall, the post office, the library and the fire station.

“I’ve seen this kind of loss before, dozens of times,” said Royle Hehr, a resident who used to run a flood and fire restoration business in Arizona. “I’ve worked with people who lost everything. I can’t believe this devastation.”

On Wednesday, volunteers handed out doughnuts and bottled water. Portable toilets and hand-washing stations were set up as wispy tails of smoke from smoldering debris — homes, outbuildings, trees, vegetation and power poles — corkscrewed into the late-summer skies.

Four miles down the two-lane county road, three or four large grain bins, filled with recently harvested wheat, continued to burn. One had split open, its commodity ablaze on the ground like sawdust logs.

In northern Washington, a 1-year-old boy was killed in the Cold Springs Fire after the child and his parents attempted to flee their property, the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office said. The family was found along the bank of the Columbia River on Wednesday morning, and the parents were flown to a hospital in Seattle with third-degree burns.

Brett Van Horn painted a mural on Market Street in San Francisco, where poor air quality caused by nearby wildfires continued on Thursday.

Brett Van Horn painted a mural on Market Street in San Francisco, where poor air quality caused by nearby wildfires continued on Thursday.Credit…Christie Hemm Klok for The New York Times

“It’s an extreme tragedy for any loss of life,” Sheriff Tony Hawley said.

Scott Hokonson, a member of the Town Council and a volunteer firefighter, said the fire had spread “like a bomb went off.”

Bay Area residents awoke to smoky gray skies on Thursday morning, and not the otherworldly orange murk that unnerved the region on Wednesday, when soot particles billowing high in the atmosphere filtered the sun’s rays into an eerie daylong twilight.

The National Weather Service said smoky and hazy conditions would probably continue in the Bay Area for the rest of the week, with no rain expected in the wildfire zones of Northern California, Oregon or Washington.

On the plus side, the winds had lightened considerably, making it easier to fight the flames, according to David Lawrence, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Without strong winds to disperse it, the smoke will linger through the weekend, Mr. Lawrence said: “Most of the western halves of Washington, Oregon, and California will be covered by smoke through the next couple of days,” he said. “Overall, it looks pretty hazy.”

Temperatures were expected to be cooler in San Francisco, a break from the searing heat that helped set the stage for state’s worst wildfire season on record.

San Francisco is known for its fog, especially in the summer, but the haze that settled on city’s skyline Thursday was no ordinary sea fog. Air quality in the region remained poor because of the wildfire smoke, and health officials in the city warned people to stay indoors at least through Friday.

The rain the region is craving may finally fall early next week, though it remains unclear how much, Mr. Lawrence said.

“Most areas would take any precipitation,” he said. “We need the weather pattern to change.”

A fire that began last month is now the largest in California’s recorded history.

The August Complex fire that raged in Northern California last month is now the biggest in the state’s recorded history, according to the United States Forest Service.

The fire was sparked by lightning in Mendocino National Forest, midway between Sacramento and the Oregon border, and has consumed at least 471,000 acres. That is 12,000 more than the 459,000 acres that burned in the Mendocino Complex wildfire in 2018.

The August Complex, which started on Aug. 17 as a cluster of 37 different fires, killed a firefighter and destroyed 26 structures, according to forest officials.

The five largest wildfires in California history have all occurred in the last three years. Three of them, including the August Complex, started last month.

All three are still burning. The L.N.U. Lightning Complex, which consumed more than 363,000 across five counties, including Napa and Sonoma, killed five people. The S.C.U. Lightning Complex has destroyed nearly 397,000 acres across five counties.

Both have been largely contained but the August Complex is only 24 percent contained, according to the Mendocino National Forest.
The Aftermath of a Wildfire
Fire tore through Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Our photographer went to see what it left behind.

Smoke from the Bear Fire lingered over Lake Oroville in California on Wednesday.

Smoke from the Bear Fire lingered over Lake Oroville in California on Wednesday.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Wildfires are ravaging the West — in California alone, five of the largest blazes on record have all struck in just the past four years — offering a deadly reminder that the nation is far behind in adopting policies widely known to protect lives and property, even though worsening fires have become a predictable consequence of climate change.

The accelerating disasters mean the United States needs to drastically rethink its approach to managing fire in the decades ahead, experts warn. “The first step is to acknowledge that fire is inevitable, and we have to learn to live with it,” said David McWethy, a fire scientist at Montana State University.

Millions of Americans are moving into wildfire-prone areas outside of cities, and communities often resist restrictions on development. A century of federal policy to aggressively extinguish all wildfires rather than letting some burn at low levels, an approach now seen as misguided, has left forests with plenty of fuel for especially destructive blazes. This is all in an era when global warming is creating a hotter, drier environment, loading the dice for more extensive fires.

Some cities and states have taken important steps, such as imposing tougher regulations on homes built in fire-prone areas. And there has been movement toward using prescribed fires to scour away excess vegetation that can fuel runaway blazes in forests and grasslands.

But these changes are still happening too slowly, experts say, and have been overtaken by the rapid increase in wildfires.

“At this point we’ve learned a lot about how to engineer homes and communities so that they can be more survivable,” said Max Moritz, a wildfire expert affiliated with the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But these lessons aren’t being implemented fast enough.”

The root cause of global warming is human behavior, and a major part of the solution is to reduce fossil fuel use, which pumps planet-warming gases into the atmosphere. But meantime there are steps that can lessen the wildfire damage even as countries work to cut emissions.
Limiting the Damage
One major reason that wildfires are becoming increasingly costly is that more Americans are moving to areas outside of cities near forests, known as the wildland-urban interface.

The police are working to dispel social media rumors about activists setting the fires.

Officials dealing with mass fires on the West Coast have been forced to counter social media rumors that the blazes were set by activists.

In Medford, Ore., which saw a blaze that devastated the nearby communities of Phoenix and Talent, the Police Department reported hearing throughout Wednesday rumors that officers had arrested either leftist antifa or right-wing Proud Boys activists for arson. The department made its own Facebook post to say that neither story was true, nor was a fake graphic associated with the rumors, nor were reports of “gatherings of Antifa.”

Still, with no evidence, other social media posts repeatedly pointed suspicion toward antifa — a loosely coordinated group of activists involved in protests in places like Portland, Ore.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday that 911 dispatchers were being overrun with requests for information about an untrue rumor that antifa members were arrested for setting fires. The office said the rumors are making a difficult situation even harder. “Do your part, STOP. SPREADING. RUMORS!” the office said in a Facebook post.

In Oregon, which has suffered catastrophic fires in the last few days, officials haven’t even seen any evidence of such a campaign at the state or local level, said Joy Krawczyk, a spokeswoman with the Oregon Department of Forestry. She said many fires remain under investigation.

“We’re not seeing any indications of a mass politically-influenced arson campaign,” Ms. Krawczyk said.

Officials have previously said that one of the most devastating fires, the Santiam Canyon blaze east of Salem, was started by falling trees that knocked down power lines.

Reporting was contributed by Mike Baker, Maria Cramer, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Bill Morlin, Brad Plumer, John Schwartz, Lucy Tompkins, Max Whittaker and Alan Yuhas.

Posted in Climate Catastrophe, Ecological Collapse, Natural Disasters, North America and tagged , .

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