Smoke, flames alter Western skies as ‘unprecedented’ wildfires the size of Connecticut burn

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  • In Oregon, almost 100,000 homes and businesses were without power as crews battled large fires in Clackamas County, south of Portland.
  • Washington state was seeing ‘unprecedented’ fires, with 500 square miles burning on Monday alone.
  • In Northern California, helicopters have rescued hundreds of people stranded in the Sierra National Forest, where the Creek Fire was burning.

SHAVER LAKE, Calif. – Heavy winds sweeping across the West fueled fast-growing wildfires Wednesday and forced mass evacuations as firefighters battled gamely to protect lives, homes and businesses.

More than 90 major fires that have burned more than 5,300 square miles – almost the size of Connecticut – are raging in 13 Western states, according to a count by the National Fire Information Center. Thick smoke obliterated the sun in some areas, distant flames turning the sky orange in others.

The San Francisco Bay Area woke up to an orange-tinged sky that gave the impression the morning had not arrived, as street lights stayed on and both drivers and folks in their homes had to turn their lights on.

Several weeks of fire season remain across a region plagued by high heat and parched terrain.

At 11:17 a.m. in San Francisco on Wednesday, street and house lights were on as smoke from fires burning throughout California darkened the skies.

Northern and Central California were under siege as Diablo winds fanned the flames of roaring, historic fires burning virtually uncontrolled. The Creek Fire in the Sierra National Forest destroyed more than 350 structures and forced evacuation of over 30,000 people in Fresno and Madera counties, authorities said.

That includes scores of people evacuated by California National Guard and Navy pilots who completed eight trips to the wilderness, bringing dozens of people back each time, Fresno County Lt. Brandon Purcell said.

In Shaver Lake, the destruction included Cressman’s General Store, an iconic landmark dating back to 1904. Dozens of homes burned, the flames charring them down to foundations and chimneys and melting away tires and paint from vehicles parked alongside. But the devastation is not total: The fire spared the Pine Ridge Elementary School, although it burned a school bus parked nearby.

Weather conditions favorable for fire spread are expected to last until Thursday, when calmer winds may bring firefighters some relief.

“We understand what you’re going through,” Incident Commander Marty Adell told evacuees. “A lot of us come from fire-prone areas. We’ve been in this business for a long time. … We are going to try everything in our power to get you back into the areas you call home.”

Glowing orange sky, thick smoke: People in the West share surreal scenes of living amid wildfires

In the Los Padres National Forest on the state’s central coast, about 15 firefighters suffered burns and smoke inhalation after deploying emergency shelters as flames from the Dolan Fire destroyed a fire station, Incident Commander Rob Allen said.

Three were flown to a hospital in Fresno, and Allen said one suffered critical injuries and another serious injuries. 

Fires were also blazing in Southern California, and the state already has seen a record 3,600 square miles burn this year. Strong winds were also driving wildfires in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

California ablaze: Striking satellite imagery shows how the fires are unfolding

In Oregon, a series of fires forced residents to flee flames, smoke and destruction. In Marion County, a Detroit evacuee wondered what she and neighbors had left behind as she raced from the inferno.

“Fire on both sides, winds blowing, ash flying. It was like driving through hell,” Jody Evans told NewsChannel 21. “Did you lose everything, or is the only thing you saved yourself?”

Social media posts across the West displayed pictures of orange or smoke-darkened skies, and ash falling like rain on cars, homes and communities.

In Oregon, Steve Davies posted a photo with the comment: “Surreal out here today … here in Salem, 20 or so miles from fires, noonish today, what looks like snow on tree tops is ash.”

California: Rescues, burned homes in north; south awaits Santa Anas

Helicopters have rescued hundreds of people stranded in the burning Sierra National Forest, where the Creek Fire that already destroyed 365 buildings threatened 5,000 more, fire officials said. 

Isaac Rodriguez of San Diego and a group of friends were backpacking above Shaver Lake and planned to camp. When things got hot, Rodriguez took refuge at Lake Edison’s Vermilion Valley Resort and waited for help.

“The day we started backpacking, we didn’t know there was a fire,” Rodriguez said. “They took care of us pretty well there. … We knew we couldn’t get out.”

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.

The El Dorado Fire in San Bernardino County, sparked last week during a baby gender-reveal event, had spread across 18 square miles and was 19% contained. Almost 1,000 firefighters aided by six helicopters were battling the blaze.

“The combination of gusty winds, very dry air, and dry vegetation will create critical fire danger,” the National Weather Service warned.

Oregon: Power outages and evacuations

In Oregon, almost 100,000 homes and businesses were without power Wednesday. The state Office of Emergency Management said at least 35 fires were burning across the state. Gov. Kate Brown approved an emergency “conflagration” order freeing up state resources for several wildfires that exceed the capabilities of local crews. She said initial reports show some blazes may have been caused by downed power lines.

“This is proving to be an unprecedented and significant fire event for our state, and frankly for the entire West Coast,” Brown said.

In Gates, a Marion County hamlet of about 500 people 35 miles east of Salem, acting Mayor John McCormick said it was difficult to track which homes were spared by the flames and which ones were destroyed. As he packed up birth certificates and other essentials before fleeing, he could see trees “exploding. You could hear them popping like firecrackers.”

“We were happy and at home and everything was great. Within a few hours, everything changed for everybody,” he said. “We weren’t even in evacuation stage until suddenly the fire was there. No step 1, 2, 3 and get out. It was ‘Get out!’ There was no warning whatsoever.”

Washington: ‘Unprecedented, heartbreaking event’

Fires continued to roar across parts of Washington state. Hundreds of residents have been ordered to evacuate this week. More than 500 square miles burned Monday alone, Gov. Jay Inslee said. That’s more in a single day than 12 of the last 18 entire fire seasons, he said.

“It’s an unprecedented and heartbreaking event,” Inslee said. “We’re living in a new world. This is not the old Washington.”

Inslee said at least nine major fires were burning across the state. He blamed heat, high winds, low humidity – and climate change – for the explosive growth of fires.

“A fire that you might’ve seen that was going to be OK over time isn’t OK anymore because the conditions are so dry, they’re so hot, they’re so windy,” Inslee said. “The climate has changed.”

One positive note: Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said there appeared to be no deaths or serious injuries in the state.

Montana: 28 homes lost in Bridger Foothills Fire

The Bridger Foothills Fire near Bozeman, Montana, isn’t large in comparison to some of the blazes exploding across the West, but it has been costly. Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said 28 residences and an unknown number of other buildings have been damaged or destroyed by fire stretching over more than 7,000 acres – about 11 square miles.

“There would have been a heck of a lot more (homes burned) than that if it weren’t for our firefighters,” Gootkin told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

Precipitation over the fire area was helping, but the sheriff’s office warned on its Facebook page that “heavy fuels” remain dry inside and continue to burn. A warming, drying trend was expected through week’s end, adding to the fire concerns.

Idaho: 13 homes burn near Orofino

In Idaho, the Idaho State Fire Marshal’s Office said on Facebook that 13 homes were destroyed along with 31 other structures and 26 vehicles near the north-central Idaho town of Orofino. The culprit was a fast-moving complex of smaller wildfires covering more than 1,600 acres.

The County Commissioners Office said a landslide along a local highway took out power lines, which may have sparked the fire. No official cause had been determined, however. No injuries or fatalities had been reported. 

Bacon reported from Arlington, Virginia; Jorge L. Ortiz from San Francisco. Contributing: Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY; Sheyanne N. Romero and Joshua Yeager, Visalia Times-Delta; Bill Poehler and Capi Lynn, Salem Statesman Journal; The Associated Press

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