At least seven people are dead including a 12-year-old boy and his grandmother as 200 wildfires continue to rage across California, Oregon and Washington after already decimating an area the same size as Connecticut.
The youngster and his grandmother died in a wildfire burning near the Santiam Valley community of Lyons, about 50 miles south of Portland. The boy’s mother is currently in hospital in critical condition.
In Washington state a one-year-old boy was killed and his parents were severely burned fleeing a fire in Okanogan County, police said.
Another three were feared dead in the California Bear Fire that swept through Butte County on Tuesday night.
Sheriff Tony Hawley said the trio was discovered on the bank of the Columbia River after they abandoned the car they had been traveling in. Officials fear the number of casualties could rise with 12 people still unaccounted for.
Strong winds and high temperatures fed the 200 large fires across California, Oregon and Washington that have so far burned more than 3.4 million acres and are still spreading.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told the Sacramento Bee confirmed that three people have died. Their identities have not yet been released.
Also in Oregon, one victim was found near to where the Almeda Fire began near homes in Medford on Tuesday.
Firefighters retreated from uncontrollable blazes in Oregon as officials gave residents ‘go now’ orders to evacuate, meaning they had only minutes to leave their homes.
‘It was like driving through hell,’ Jody Evans told local television station NewsChannel21 after a midnight evacuation from Detroit, about 50 miles west of Salem.
Across the United States wildfires have burned nearly 4.7 million acres in 2020, the highest year-to-date area since 2018, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Most of the fires are in western states, where 17 new large blazes were reported on Wednesday, bringing the total to 96 that have burned more than 3.4 million acres – an area nearly the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut.
Over a century of efforts by federal and state agencies to suppress naturally occurring blazes have left forests replete with dry timber and brush that provides fuel for large wildfires.
Home construction has encroached on some forests in recent decades, and owners are watching their houses burn as firefighters are unable to save property.
‘You add the winds, the dry conditions, the hot temperatures, it’s the perfect recipe,’ said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for California’s state fire authority of the Creek Fire that has torched over 360 homes and other structures.
‘This fire is just burning at an explosive rate.’
Winds of up to 50 miles per hour sent blazes racing tens of miles within hours, burning hundreds of homes as firefighters fought at least 35 major blazes across an area of Oregon nearly twice the size of New York City.
Parts of Medford, Oregon, a popular retirement location with over 80,000 residents in the state’s scenic Rogue Valley, were under evacuation orders or warnings as a growing wildfire closed a section of Interstate 5, the primary north-south highway in the West.
The fire moved north to Medford from Ashland, where it started on Tuesday. The blaze did little damage to Ashland, home to the historic stages of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which normally draws more than 350,000 theatergoers a year.
But as the blaze moved northward, it heavily damaged the small town of Talent with about 6,000 residents and Phoenix, with around 5,000, according to local police..
Medford, with over 80,000 residents, was under evacuation orders or warnings as a growing wildfire closed a section of Interstate 5, the primary north-south highway in the West.
The fire is suspected so far to have caused one death north of Ashland, said Rich Tyler, spokesman for the Oregon State Fire Marshal.
Brown saw no respite to the hot, windy weather and requested a federal emergency declaration for the state.
‘Absolutely no area in the state is free from fire,’ said Doug Graf, chief of fire protection for the Oregon Department of Forestry.
The Oregon town of Mill City, about 65 miles south of Portland with a population around 1,900, also had major damage, and Malden, with about 200 people in eastern Washington state, was destroyed on Monday.
In central California, the Creek Fire about 35 miles north of Fresno tore through a forest killed by drought and bark beetles as U.S. military helicopters pulled campers, hikers and residents out of the area.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown called the extreme heat and wind a ‘once in a lifetime event,’ as climate scientists blamed human activities for higher average temperatures that have supercharged fires.
‘This is proving to be an unprecedented and significant fire event for our state,’ Brown told a press briefing.
‘This could be the greatest loss in human lives and property due to wildfire in our state´s history,’ Brown said, without providing details.
Officials said 64,000 people had been evacuated from their homes as 28 major fires raged across the most populated U.S. state.
Evacuations were ordered for a broad area around a massive 200,000-acre wildfire burning north of Sacramento. Residents of more than a dozen towns including the city of Oroville were either told to evacuate immediately or be prepared to go. The fire raged perilously close to the town of Paradise, which was burned to the ground in 2018 by a wildfire, killing 85 people.
Climate scientists blame global warming for extreme wet and dry seasons in the U.S. West that have caused grasses and scrub to flourish then dry out, leaving abundant fuel for fires.
In California, all 18 National Forests were closed due to ‘unprecedented and historic fire conditions.’
To the south, the Creek Fire, about 35 miles north of Fresno, tore through the Sierra National Forest, which was susceptible due to drought and bark beetle damage, destroying over 360 homes and structures.
‘This fire is just burning at an explosive rate,’ said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for California’s state fire authority. ‘You add the winds, the dry conditions, the hot temperatures, it’s the perfect recipe.’
People in San Francisco and elsewhere in California woke Wednesday to a deep orange sky that triggered apocalyptic visions in a year already rife with disturbing events.
Skies so dark at times that it appeared more night than day were accompanied in some places with ash falling like snow, the cause being massive wild fires filling the air with smoke and cinders.
‘The orange skies this morning are a result of wildfire smoke in the air,’ San Francisco Bay air quality officials said in a tweet.
‘These smoke particles scatter blue light and only allow yellow-orange-red light to reach the surface, causing skies to look orange.’
As smoke gets thick in some areas, it blocks sunlight causing dark skies, the officials explained.
Photos of the eerie scene, particularly of a San Francisco skyline fit for a dystopian science fiction film, spread quickly on social media.
‘Is there a word for ‘the apocalypse is upon us burnt sienna?’ read one tweet fired off by someone who felt using the word ‘orange’ to describe the sky was being too kind.
Others likened the scenes to planets other than Earth.
‘If literal fire skies don’t wake us up to climate change, then nothing will,’ tweeted YouTube influencer and Zadiko tea startup chief Zack Kornfeld.
‘Enjoy joking about how crazy this year is because we made this mess and it’s only going to get worse.’
Dark skies blocking the sun chilled temperatures at what has historically been the warmest time year in San Francisco.
‘Geo-color imagery shows a very thick multilevel smoke deck over much of California,’ the US National Weather Service said in a tweet.
‘This smoke is filtering the incoming energy from the sun, causing much cooler temperatures and dark dreary red-shifted skies across many areas.’
California Governor Gavin Newsom on Sunday night declared a state of emergency as his hard-hit state struggled to beat back the blazes.
The Labor Day weekend heat wave fueled new fires that pushed the state to set a new record for number of acres burned with 2,178,015 as of Tuesday night.
The previous record was set just two years ago and included the deadliest fire in state history, the Camp Fire, which ripped through the town of Paradise and killed 85 people in November 2018.
Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said the new record was especially alarming because of how early in the year it was set.
‘It’s a little unnerving because September and October are historically our worst months for fires,’ Tolmachoff told AP. ‘It’s usually hot, and the fuels really dry out. And we see more of our wind events.’
Compared to last year, California has seen over 2,650 more fires and a nearly 2000 percent increase in the acres burned year-to-date (January 1 – September 7), across all jurisdictions, Cal Fire said.
The state has seen 900 wildfires since August 15, many of them started by an intense series of thousands of lightning strikes in mid-August. There have been eight fire deaths and nearly 4,000 structures destroyed.
Randy Moore, regional forester for the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region, warned that the blazes are expected to worsen in the coming days.
‘The wildfire situation throughout California is dangerous and must be taken seriously,’ Moore told AP. ‘Existing fires are displaying extreme fire behavior, new fire starts are likely, weather conditions are worsening, and we simply do not have enough resources to fully fight and contain every fire.’
On Tuesday night, Cal Fire said that the Creek Fire had worsened in the previous 24 hours owing to strong winds.
‘The fire continued to grow under extreme conditions,’ the agency said in an update. ‘The Red Flag Warning for strong winds will impact the fire in the early morning, with stronger winds to come. The fire made wind driven runs and increased spotting distance.
‘Red Flag Warning in effect until 11 pm Tuesday for high temperatures, low humidity and high winds.’
The California National Guard (CNG) was called in over the weekend to rescue more than 400 hikers and campers who found themselves trapped in the mountains after roads were closed to the Creek Fire.
More than 200 people were airlifted from Mammoth Lake over Saturday and Sunday – and another 148 were rescued from near Lake Edison and Chinese Peak early Tuesday morning, the CNG said.
Officials said at least 65 more hikers could still be trapped in the Sierra National Forest as rescue efforts continue.
One hiker had been confirmed dead from an apparent heart attack, and officials warned there may be multiple more casualties.
In Southern California, fires burned in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties, and the forecast called for the arrival of the region’s notorious Santa Anas. The hot, dry winds could reach 50 mph at times, forecasters said.
People in a half-dozen foothill communities east of Los Angeles were being told to stay alert because of a fire in the Angeles National Forest.
‘The combination of gusty winds, very dry air, and dry vegetation will create critical fire danger,’ the National Weather Service warned.
The US Forest Service on Monday decided to close all eight national forests in the southern half of the state and shutter campgrounds statewide.
Firefighters have made headway with one blaze in the area – the El Dorado Fire – which was sparked on Saturday by a gender reveal photoshoot, when a pyrotechnical smoke device sent sparks into the bone-dry brush.
The El Dorado Fire has burned more than 11,259 acres as of Tuesday night and is 19 percent contained.
Officials said the family behind the gender reveal debacle could face civil or criminal charges for the fire.
The threat of winds tearing down power lines or hurling debris into them and sparking a wildfire prompted Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility, to shut off power to 172,000 customers over the weekend.
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