Apocalyptic Wildfires Rage Up and Down West Coast

A sign along Interstate 5 north of Eugene, Ore. warns drivers that Highway 126 eastbound is closed do to a wildfire, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, in the area as smoke clogs the sky from wildfires burning in the state. (Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via AP)

(CN) — Illuminating the unmatched disaster pounding the West Coast, millions woke up Wednesday to the increasingly familiar blend of orange skies and swirling ash as countless wildfires rage through California, Oregon and Washington state. 

Supercharged by multiple days of intense winds and record-breaking heat, a variety of destructive wildfires spawned hazardous air quality and sepia-toned landscapes across hundreds of miles, from Puget Sound near Seattle down to the San Francisco Bay Area.

While the western states are accustomed to planning for and fighting major September wildfires, the seemingly coordinated siege is churning through populated land at a record pace, forcing officials to sound the alarm once again on climate change. 

In Washington state on Monday, a series of wildfires combined to char 330,000 acres in a 24-hour-period — more than double the total burned in all of 2019.

“This is an unprecedented and heartbreaking event,” Washington state Governor Jay Inslee told reporters. “We know that we’ve been well prepared for fires, we’ve fought them before, we know how to do it; but these conditions were unprecedented.” 

After gaining ground on a batch of August fires sparked by dry-lightning storms, California’s firefight took a dramatic and sudden turn for the worse on Tuesday.

The north winds that zipped through Washington cruelly continued south into the Golden State, revitalizing blazes that had previously caused over 100,000 people to flee their homes. With two months to go in California’s traditional wildfire season, a record 2.3 million acres have already been blackened.

“California is being impacted by a scale and scope that makes this a very challenging time in our state’s history,” said Governor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday. “I have no patience, I say this lovingly, not as an ideologue, but as someone who prides himself on being open to argument interested in evidence, but I quite literally have no patience for climate change deniers.”

The windstorm didn’t spare Oregon’s lush Ponderosa pine forests either, as hundreds of thousands of acres went quickly up in flames, causing widespread evacuations near Medford, one of the state’s largest cities. The Almeda Fire sparked north of Ashland and spread within the city limits of Medford, population 83,000.

Due to fires burning elsewhere in counties like Clackamas, Jackson and Marion, Oregon Governor Kate Brown was forced to follow suit and declare a statewide emergency.

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

By Wednesday morning wind speeds had plunged, allowing the smoke to once again coalesce above Northern California. Air quality indexes in many regions ranged from unhealthy to hazardous, prompting officials in the Bay Area to issue spare the air alerts urging residents to stay indoors for the 23rd consecutive day.

Ash accumulated on vehicles in Sacramento overnight Wednesday as multiple major wildfires burn throughout California. (Courthouse News photo / Nick Cahill)

Sunrise in the Bay Area was subdued by a mixture of fog and smoke, causing commuters to use their headlights and city street lights to turn on as if it were dusk or a total solar eclipse. Along with the orange hues, ash accumulated in places like Concord, Sacramento and Modesto.

California’s firefight in recent weeks has been centered on several complexes sparked by rare summer thunderstorms. But the focus has switched to a pair of hard-charging blazes in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Burning near the scar of the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive blaze in state history, the Bear Fire spurred new evacuations near Oroville late Tuesday and Wednesday in Butte County. The fire is part of the North Complex, which has burned over 254,000 acres and according to federal officials is 38% contained.

Over the holiday weekend, a fire south of Yosemite National Park produced harrowing helicopter rescues and stories of hikers scrambling to outrun flames on foot.

The Creek Fire started Friday evening and has already burned over 163,000 acres across three counties, making a 15-mile run in a single day, according to the U.S. Forest Service. About 200 campers were airlifted from Wagner Mammoth Pool Campground by the California National Guard when the blaze surrounded them. As of Wednesday morning, the Creek Fire is zero percent contained and has already burned 360 structures.

To the south in San Bernardino County, the El Dorado Fire has burned over 11,000 acres near the city of Yucaipa and is 19% contained. Cal Fire says a smoke-releasing “pyrotechnic device” or firework at a gender-reveal party sparked the fire after 10 a.m. Saturday.

Meanwhile in San Diego County, the Valley Fire has charred 18,000 acres in the Cleveland National Forest. Nearly 700 firefighters have been assigned to the blaze which has destroyed at least 37 structures. 

The speed and scope of the wildfires’ spread befuddled and alarmed the governors and experts alike.

“The wildfire situation in California and Oregon has now escalated to the point that I can no longer keep track of the countless massive, fast-moving, and potentially very dangerous fires. The geographic scale and intensity of what is transpiring is truly jarring,” said UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain in a tweet.   

The litany of major incidents has forced the closure of all 18 national forests located in the Golden State, as over 14,000 firefighters continue to struggle against some of the largest wildfires in state history.

According to Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant, the fight against the 28 major fires will be mainly from the ground due to high winds expected to persist through Wednesday.

 “We’re just not able to fly safely and effectively from the air,” Berlant said in an update.

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