Dozens of wind-driven wildfires race through more than a dozen western U.S. states.
More than 500,000 people in Oregon have been forced to evacuate because of wildfires – over 10% of the state’s population – as the blazes continued to race through more than a dozen Western states Friday.
At least 23 people have died and hundreds of homes have been destroyed by more than 100 major fires that have consumed an area nearly the size of New Jersey. Nineteen deaths have been reported in California, three in Oregon and one in Washington state.
Nearly 28,000 firefighters and support personnel are assigned to wildfires across the West, and evacuation orders are in place for residents near 42 large fires, the National Interagency Fire Center said Friday.
Oregon 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.
“We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across our state,” Brown wrote on Twitter late Thursday. “Currently there are fires burning more than 900,000 acres. To put that into perspective, over the last 10 years, an average of 500,000 acres burn in an entire year. We’ve seen nearly double that in 3 days.”
The Oregon Office of Emergency Management said 39 wildfires were burning in the state by Thursday morning, a number that shocked officials.
As evacuees fled to hotels, reports of price gouging began to circulate. Brown issued an executive order Thursday declaring an abnormal market disruption, which allows the Attorney General and Oregon Department of Justice to investigate businesses where price gouging is reported.
“During a statewide emergency, it is absolutely unacceptable to price gouge Oregonians who have already been hard hit and are facing devastating loss,” Brown said in a statement.
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California continues to battle 29 major wildfires
In California, which has already endured three of the top four largest wildfires in its history this year, 14,000 firefighters remain on the line of 29 major wildfires.
In Northern California, at least 20,000 people were under evacuation orders or warnings in Plumas, Yuba and Butte counties. 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.
The fourth-largest active fire in the state – the Creek Fire in Central California – was just 6% contained late Thursday, according to Cal Fire. As the fire ripped through thousands of acres of forest and destroyed homes earlier this week, it also produced two fire tornadoes that forced airliners to detour around them.
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In Southern California, fires burned in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. The El Dorado Fire, which has burned more than 20 square miles in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, was listed as 31% contained as of late Thursday. More than 1,200 firefighters were on the scene, Cal Fire said.
Since January, wildfires have burned almost 5,000 square miles in California and more than 6,300 structures have been damaged or destroyed.
At least seven weeks remain in the prime fire season, and conditions may be exacerbated by the La Niña climate pattern – a natural cycle marked by cooler-than-average ocean water in the central Pacific Ocean – that tends to bring dry weather across portions of California and much of the Southwest.
“We’re already in a bad position, and La Niña puts us in a situation where fire-weather conditions persist into November and possibly even December,” Ryan Truchelut, president of Weather Tiger LLC, told Bloomberg News. “It is exacerbating existing heat and drought issues.”
Washington state braces for ‘huge mass of smoke’
Historic blazes have also been burning in Washington state, where a “huge mass of smoke” from wildfires in Oregon and California has been building up off the coast.
The Washington state Department of Ecology encouraged residents to close their windows before going to bed Thursday night and to expect to wake up to “unhealthy” air quality Friday.
Satellite imagery shared by the Bureau of Land Management of Oregon and Washington Thursday showed a massive cloud along the West Coast.
Wind-driven fires were also burning in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
“I wish the 2020 wildfires were an anomaly – but this will not be a one-time event. Unfortunately, it is a bellwether of the future,” Brown wrote on Twitter late Thursday. “We are seeing the devastating effects of climate change in Oregon, on the entire West Coast, and throughout the world.”
Contributing: Doyle Rice, John Bacon, Trevor Hughes and Jorge L. Ortiz, USA TODAY; Bill Poehler, Salem Statesman Journal; Damon Arthur, Visalia Times-Delta
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