Josh Edelson / AFP via Getty Images
Severe fires have devastated large areas of the West Coast, prompting thousands of people to flee parts of Oregon and forcing power outages in California, where the fire has already burned a record more than 2.3 million hectares this year. Fires are raging from Washington state to Southern California.
In southern Oregon, people in the Medford, Talent and surrounding communities were ordered to evacuate immediately to the area on Tuesday, officials said there was an imminent threat of rapid fire. The entire city of Phoenix – which has thousands of people – was told to leave.
“I heard popping and houses exploding and burning,” Bear Creek Mobile Home Park resident Edward Hancock said as he described the scene just outside Ashland to reporter April Ehrlich of Jefferson Public Radio. Hancock and many neighbors eventually went to a temporary evacuation center in the county’s fairgrounds.
This park in Talent, Oregon, is where many Latino families live. My friend’s home is in this shot. I swallowed. I hope he is ok. My heart hurts.
I also live near it and have a great chance of losing my house. pic.twitter.com/f3NBeKjN5A
– April Ehrlich (@AprilEhrlich) September 9, 2020
Ehrlich, who lives in Talent, said he fled his home and went to a friend’s place in Medford – so that place would also fall under evacuation orders. Early Wednesday, he said via Twitter, “there is a good chance I lost my house.”
Representatives in Clackamas County, southeast of Portland, spent the night going to the door to make sure residents knew they had to get out, the county sheriff’s office said. A fire in the area was sparked “when an RV taking a Jeep south fired sparks and caught fire. The RV pulled out and started the fire,” the sheriff’s office said.
“We are in an unprecedented fire event,” said Oregon Governor Kate Brown, urging people to follow evacuation orders, “try to reduce smoke exposure – and take care of each other. “
Across the region, 15 new major fires were reported on Monday alone, the National Interagency Fire Center said. That created at least 87 large fires, which burned more than 2.7 million hectares. Even in places where the fire was not reached, enormous amounts of smoke filled the sky, making it difficult to breathe.
“Forests and meteorologists say they are seeing unprecedented fire behavior, with flaming thousands of miles in just a few hours,” Raquel Maria Dillon of KQED station member Raquel Maria Dillon said.
“Near Big Sur, the fire jumped on a line of contact and overtook more than a dozen firefighters on Tuesday,” Dillon said. “One is in critical condition. On the other side of the state in the Sierra Nevada, military helicopters rescued hundreds of backpackers and encamped.”
David McNew / Getty Images
The fire season of 2020 begins with a surprising start, much better than last year. By the end of the first week of September 2019, California saw less than 5,000 fires, burning nearly 118,000 acres. At the same point this year, the state recorded more than 7,600 fires and nearly 2.3 million acres burned, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.
The fire was stoked by a recent wave of heat and driven by strong winds. In many places, even a small fire can find a lot of fuel – dry timber, grass and toothbrush – officials said, urging people to avoid any activities that could create a spark.
An explosion of cold air may reduce the risks in some areas within the country, but on the coast, it adds to the problems.
“Strong winds in the western part of the winter storm have brought dangerous and threatening fire conditions to large parts of the western US,” the National Weather Service said, “from the Southwest desert, via Great Basin, most of California in the Pacific Northwest. “
Dangerous winds could begin to reduce coastal areas on Thursday, the weather service said.
A critical or high-threat fire season persisted in many of those areas, with Red Flag Warnings along most of the West Coast and nearby areas on Wednesday.
Pacific Gas & Electric shut down power in parts of Northern and Central California, hoping to reduce the chance that its power lines could be triggered.
“The shutdown of PG&E has affected 170,000 homes and businesses from the California wine country to the Sierra Nevada mountains,” KQED’s Lily Jamali reported.
Such extreme measures are a last resort, the utility says.
“PG&E has set up 50 community resource centers for customers, especially those in need of medical equipment,” Jamali said. “But the utility has shut down three of them so far because of the fire that is destroying the state.”
The U.S. Forest Service has closed campsites in all California national forests, citing the deadly dangers of “extreme fire behavior” and firefighting resources stretched thin.