UNITED STATES—September 15, 2020—At least 87 wildfires are burning in 11 states across the West where more than 4.7 million acres have burned—more than six times the area of Rhode Island. The West Coast fires have claimed the lives of at least 36 people, and 22 people are currently missing in Oregon, according to CNN. As the skies fill with smoke and ash, the West Coast is now experiencing the worst air quality in the world.
California has had its worst fire season on record, and 25 people have died across the state as firefighters work round the clock to gain control of the fires. The North Complex Fire, burning more than 260,000 acres, is responsible for 15 of the state’s deaths, according to CNN. As of Tuesday morning, The August Complex Fire northwest of Sacramento had burned more than 750,000 acres and was about 30% contained. Northeast of Fresno, the Creek Fire is just 16% contained and it has already burned through 200,000 acres, according to The New York Times.
At least 10 people have been killed in Oregon, and officials fear more fatalities among the 22 people reported missing. A mobile morgue is operating alongside search-and-rescue teams in Linn County as first responders work to find survivors and identify the dead, according to CNN. Tens of thousands of people are under evacuation orders in Oregon where officials are encouraging evacuees to register with the Red Cross so that family members will know they are safe. The New York Times reports the Beachie Creek Fire has scorched nearly 200,000 acres east of Salem and collectively more than 950,000 acres have been lost to nearly three dozen fires across the state.
In Washington, the entire state is covered by a thick cloud of smoke that has grounded flights and makes the air difficult to breathe. Smoke is traveling across the country, clouding skies in the Midwest and sending haze as far as New York City, according to The New York Times. The two largest fires in Washington have together burned more than 412,500 acres and the town of Malden, Wash. lost 80% of its buildings, according to CNN.
Officials including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti have stated that the massive West Coast fires are the result of climate change, according to CNN. Hotter, drier summers are turning vegetation into fuel, leading to conditions where fires spark easily and grow to into uncontrollable infernos sometimes in minutes. Strong winds have exacerbated the fires, but The New York Times reports forecasters expected areas of Northern California and Oregon to see lighter winds beginning Tuesday, which should help firefighters as they work to contain the blazes.
September 9, 2020
Hundreds Evacuated by Helicopter as West Coast Fire Season Continues Record-Breaking Pace
UNITED STATES—September 9, 2020—Heading into the peak of wildfire season, California has already suffered a record 2.3 million acres burned this year. More than two-dozen major fires are actively burning in the state, prompting new evacuations and dramatic helicopter rescues as the West Coast fires burn on. Pacific Gas & Electric cut power to more than 172,000 customers over the weekend with more outages expected as high heat and strong winds produced favorable fire conditions across much of the state, according to the Associated Press. After PG&E power lines were identified as the cause of the state’s deadliest wildfire in 2018, the utility company began the practice of shutting off power preemptively when conditions are particularly dangerous.
Diablo winds in Northern and Central California fueled the fires burning there, where two of the three largest fires in state history are burning in the San Francisco Bay Area, according to the AP. While working to protect a fire station in Los Padres National Forest, fifteen firefighters suffered burns and smoke inhalation with three being hospitalized, according to USA Today.
More than 30,000 people in Fresno and Madera Counties were forced to evacuate as the Creek Fire burned through the Sierra National Forest, destroying more than 350 structures. Some people, trapped in the forest by the flames, had to be airlifted to safety by California National Guard and Navy pilots who completed eight round trips into the inferno to rescue the stranded people, according to USA Today. The AP reports that more than 200 people were evacuated by helicopters over two days. In Southern California, fires are burning in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties as forecasters warn of the arrival of the fall Santa Ana winds which could reach speeds of 50 mph.
States across the West are plagued by this year’s severe West Coast fire season as high temperatures and dry winds—at times reaching hurricane-force—fueled blazes in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming over the weekend, according to USA Today. The AP reports that the small town of Malden, Wash. was mostly destroyed by one of nine major fires currently burning through the state. Hundreds of residents are evacuating as the flames scorched more than 500 square miles on Monday alone, according to USA Today.
At least 35 fires are burning in Oregon where nearly 100,000 customers were without power on Wednesday after initial reports showed some of the fires may have been caused by downed power lines, according to USA Today. In Montana, the smaller Bridger Foothills Fire destroyed 28 homes and a number of other structures near Bozeman, Mont. Thirteen homes and 31 other structures were destroyed near Orofino, Idaho when a complex of smaller wildfires burned rapidly through the area.
The AP reports that large-scale fire events are occurring with increasing frequency, and studies suggest that the effects of climate change are creating a drier California, which makes its landscape of brush and forest highly flammable. Stanford University climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh said, “The frequency of extreme wild fire weather has doubled in California over the past four decades, with the main driver being the effect of rising temperature on dry fuels, meaning that the fuel loads are now frequently at record or near-record levels when ignition occurs and when strong winds blow,” according to the AP. This year’s record-breaking season in California comes just two years after the previous record was set when 1.8 million acres burned in the state in 2018. That season was also California’s deadliest, killing more than 100 people, 85 of whom perished when the historic Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise and became both the state’s deadliest and most destructive fire on record, according to NBC News.