OROVILLE, Calif. – Wildfires raced through more than a dozen Western states Thursday, incinerating homes, forcing hundreds of thousands of evacuations, and burning a swath of land almost the size of New Jersey.
At least 23 people have died and hundreds of homes have been destroyed by more than 100 major fires that have consumed nearly 7,000 square miles. Authorities in Oregon say more than 500,000 people statewide have been forced to evacuate because of wildfires – over 10% of the state’s 4.2 million population.
“Unprecedented weather conditions have created emergency situations near wildfires throughout California, Oregon, Washington and other states,” the National Fire Information Center warned. “Almost half of the large fires reported today have evacuation orders in place.”
Nineteen deaths have been reported in California, three in Oregon and one in Washington state. In Northern California’s Butte County, Sheriff Kory Honea said at least 10 people have died, including seven more added to the death toll Thursday. Dozens are missing and hundreds of homes were feared destroyed by a series of blazes 125 miles northeast of San Francisco called the North Complex fires.
Several people have been critically burned and thousands more homes were threatened. At least 20,000 people were under evacuation orders or warnings in Plumas, Yuba and Butte counties.
John Sykes, a 50-year resident, fled with his car and some clothes. He watched the town of Berry Creek burn from about a mile away.
“The school is gone, the fire department’s gone, the bar’s gone, the laundromat’s gone, the general store’s gone,” Sykes told the Sacramento Bee. “I’ll never go back. … I never want to see California again.”
The fire also threatened Paradise, a town devastated in 2018 by the deadliest inferno in state history, the Camp Fire. More than 80 residents died and almost 20,000 buildings were destroyed in that blaze.
In the Sierra National Forest, authorities say it will likely be at least a week, and possibly a month, before the Creek Fire is controlled sufficiently to permit residents to return. The fire has displaced tens of thousands of Californians, and the Red Cross was helping evacuees find hotel rooms because group shelters are prohibited during the coronavirus outbreak.
Fire officials have not yet released detailed maps of the fire damage but say at least 60 homes and 278 commercial-residential structures were destroyed. Rocky Alec, 22, and Kristen Kipp, 21, had to abandon their trailer home near Mammoth.
“You couldn’t really see anything. There was smoke everywhere. We were in too much smoke to see flames,” Alec said. “At first we were like it was just another fire. Then it got real.”
In Southern California, fires burned in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. But severe Santa Ana winds forecast for the area were weaker than predicted.
The El Dorado Fire, which has burned about 20 square miles in San Bernardino County, was listed as 23% contained Thursday. Almost 1,000 firefighters were “actively engaged in structure protection and successfully defended multiple structures,” Cal Fire said.
Homes have been lost, however, and damage-assessment teams were working to confirm the number of homes and businesses and their locations. Fire officials said the blaze was sparked by a pyrotechnic device used during a “gender reveal” event Saturday.
Winds may die down, but smoke and fire threat will persist
The strong, gusty winds over the West weakened Thursday and should continue to do so over the weekend, the National Weather Service said.
“We’re encouraged that the wind activity appears to be dying down,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said. “The rest of the week looks a little more favorable.”
That is good news for a state where 14,000 firefighters remain on the line of 29 major wildfires. The last few weeks have been grueling, as has much of a year during which California has already endured six of the 20 largest wildfires in its history, including three of the top four.
Since January, wildfires have burned almost 5,000 square miles in California, easily a record for the state. There have been 12 fatalities, and over 3,900 structures have been destroyed.
At least seven weeks remain in the prime fire season, and low humidity combined with warmer temperatures forecast in coming days will be enough for elevated fire concerns to remain, according to the Weather Service.
In addition, a stagnant air mass will likely keep areas of smoke in place across the Northwest, Great Basin, California and other areas across the West dealing with the wildfires, resulting in continued poor air quality, AccuWeather said.
Some more substantial relief may be on the way for the Northwest by early next week as a storm system approaches the coast, potentially bringing some welcome rainfall, according to AccuWeather.
Oregon and Washington state also have struggled with historic blazes, and wind-driven fires were also burning in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Largest amount of uncontained fire
In Oregon, a series of fires killed three people and forced residents to flee flames, smoke and destruction. Gov. Kate Brown said hundreds of residences have been destroyed. She said emergency responders were “inundated” and urged residents not to call 911 to report smoke or ash clouds. Evacuees poured into the state fairgrounds in the capital city of Salem, many bringing their animals.
Brown said more than 900,000 acres have burned across the state in the last several days – nearly double the amount of scorched terrain in a typical year. More than 80,000 people have had to flee their homes, and the count may increase, she said.
“We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across the state,” Brown said.
The Oregon Office of Emergency Management said 39 wildfires were burning in the state by Thursday morning, a number that shocked officials.
Jonathan Weir defied evacuation orders as flames 30 feet high shot from the trees in Phoenix, a town of 4,000 residents near the California border. His home was destroyed.
“There were flames across the street from me, flames to the right of me, flames to the left of me. I just watched everything burn,” Weir said.
‘Looked like a war zone’ along Interstate 5
Fires were burning in seven Oregon counties, and the Almeda Drive Fire in southern Oregon prompted evacuation orders in much of Medford, a city of about 80,000 residents.
Truck driver Troy Wood said he was driving north on the I-5 and saw a path of destruction as he approached Ashland, a few miles southeast of Medford.
“It looked like a … war zone,” Wood said. “You could see burned out gas stations and buildings on fire.”
In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee toured the devastated farm town of Malden, about 35 miles south of Spokane, and said wildfires have charred nearly 937 square miles of terrain.
“We’ve had this trauma all over Washington,” Inslee said, according to KHQ-TV. “But this is the place where the whole heart of the town was torn out.”
Inslee placed the blame for the rash of fires squarely on climate change. He promised “steps to defeat” the impact of global warming.
“We are not going to surrender the future of this state to climate change,” he said. “We are stronger, smarter and more resilient than that. And I’ll be thinking of these fires and the communities they’re impacting when we take our next steps to defeat climate change.”
Bacon reported from Arlington, Va. Contributing: Doyle Rice, USA TODAY; Damon Arthur and David Benda, Redding Record Searchlight; The Associated Press