US Wildfires: Harrowing images show charred remains of towns in California and Oregon as thousands flee deadly blazes

Officials say there are around 85 fires burning across the West Coast

Matt Mathers
Wednesday 09 September 2020 19:11
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Emergency crews battle wildfires in Washington County, Oregon

Harrowing images show the trail of destruction left behind by the California wildfires that have so far decimated more than two million acres of land, burnt houses to the ground and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.

As of Wednesday morning, 25 blazes continued to ravage the state, which is experiencing a record-breaking heatwave, with temperatures reaching  49.4C in LA County on Sunday — the highest ever recorded in the area, forecasters said. The Creek Fire, which started on Friday, had burnt through 152,833 acres as of Tuesday night, Cal Fire said.

Authorities say there are now some 85 fires tearing across the US west coast, in what has been described as an unprecedented wildfire season, aided by the sweltering conditions and dry land. “The wildfire situation throughout California is dangerous and must be taken seriously,”  said Randy Moore, regional forester for the California Forest Service's Pacific Southwest region.

"Existing fires are displaying extreme fire behaviour, new fire starts are likely, weather conditions are worsening, and we simply do not have enough resources to fully fight and contain every fire."

Meanwhile, in Oregon thousands of people were forced to flee their homes to escape an inferno that is thought to have torched more than 200,000 acres. Governor Kate Brown on Tuesday declared a fire emergency as she sought to obtain more resources for emergency services tackling three major fires in the state. "This is definitely a once-in-a-generation event," she told a press briefing.

A burned car sits completely destroyed after the Creek Fire swept through the area on September 8, 2020 near Shaver Lake, California

Parts of Washington state are also being engulfed by flames. Governor Jay Inslee said the state has experienced more fires this summer than it has in the past 12 years. Around 100,000 people were left without power in the state on Tuesday. A fire in the small town of Malden scorched more than three-quarters of homes and public infrastructure, authorities said.

"I just can't reiterate," Mr Inslee said, "we think almost all of these fires were human-caused, in some dimension. If you can avoid being outside for anything that would even cause a spark, I hope people can avoid those conditions."

In a surreal turn of events, fire crews battling a blaze in Colorado were aided by unexpected snowfall that helped tame the flames.

Wildfires raged unchecked throughout California on Wednesday, and gusty winds could drive flames into new ferocity, authorities warned.

Diablo winds in the north and Santa Ana winds in the south were forecast into Wednesday at a time when existing wildfires already have grown explosively.

A man digs through the wreckage after a fire torched parts of Graham, Washington

On Tuesday firefighters were forced to deploy emergency shelters as flames overtook them and destroyed the Nacimiento Station, a fire station in the Los Padres National Forest on the state's central coast, the US Forest Service said. They suffered from burns and smoke inhalation, and three were flown to a hospital in a Fresno, where one was in critical condition.

In the past two days, helicopters were used to rescue hundreds of people stranded in the burning Sierra National Forest, where the Creek Fire has destroyed 365 buildings, including at least 45 homes, and threatened 5,000 structures, fire officials said.

Flames also threatened the foothill community of Auberry, between Shaver Lake and Fresno.

In southern California, fires burned in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties, and the forecast predicted the arrival of the region's notorious Santa Anas. The hot, dry winds could reach 50mph 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.

A burned Valero gas station smolders during the Creek fire in an unincorporated area of Fresno County, California on September 08, 2020

More than 14,000 firefighters are battling fires. Two of the three largest blazes in state history are burning in the San Francisco Bay Area, though they are largely contained after burning for three weeks.

California has already set a record with nearly 2.3 million acres burnt this year — surpassing a record set just two years ago — and the worst part of the wildfire season is only beginning.

"It's extraordinary, the challenge that we've faced so far this season," Governor Gavin Newsom said.

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. More outages were expected on Wednesday, with power not expected to be completely restored until Wednesday night.

To the south, Southern California Edison warned roughly 55,000 customer accounts may lose power while San Diego Gas & Electric said 16,700 customers are at risk of a preemptive outage.

In the Sierra National Forest east of Fresno, dozens of campers and hikers were stranded at the Vermilion Valley Resort after the only road in — a narrow route snaking along a steep cliff — was closed on Sunday because of the Creek Fire.

A Butte county firefighter douses flames at the Bear fire in Oroville, California on September 9, 2020

Well before dawn on Tuesday, the sound of helicopter blades chopping through the air awoke Katelyn Mueller, bringing relief after two anxious nights camping in the smoke.

"It was probably the one time you're excited to hear a helicopter," Mueller said. "You could almost feel a sigh of relief seeing it come in."

The use of military helicopters to rescue a large number of civilians for a second day — 164 before dawn on Tuesday and 214 people from a wooded camping area on Saturday — is rare, if not unprecedented.

"This is emblematic of how fast that fire was moving, plus the physical geography of that environment with one road in and one road out," said Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College who has written extensively about wildfires. "Unless you wanted an absolute human disaster, you had to move fast."

Numerous studies in recent years have linked bigger wildfires in America to global warming from the burning of coal, oil and gas, especially because climate change has made California much drier, making plants more flammable.

"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," Stanford University climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh said in an email.

Additional reporting by Associated Press

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