U.S.|Wildfires Live Updates: Blazes Scorch Habitats for Endangered Species
Sept. 16, 2020, 7:00 p.m. ET
The fast-moving fires have wiped out critical populations of endangered species and incinerated native habitats that may take years to recover.
The prospect of scattered showers raised hopes for better firefighting conditions in the Pacific Northwest, but California “remains dry and ripe for wildfires,” Cal Fire said.
Here’s what you need to know:
- The fires have devastated populations of endangered species in the West.
- Newsom says he will soon announce new measures to tackle climate change.
- Millions of acres burn in California as weather improves in Northwest.
- Fires put this year’s apple crop is at risk in Washington State.
- Some of the planet’s most polluted skies are over the West Coast.
- A small town in Oregon fights to save itself from the fires.
- Intense fires are testing the limits of traditional firefighting techniques.
The fires have devastated populations of endangered species in the West.
The fast-moving fires that swept through Western United States have wiped out critical populations of endangered species and incinerated native habitats that may take years to recover, if they recover at all.
Fire is a critical part of ecosystems in the West, and many plants and animals depend on it to thrive, but the heat and intensity of the wildfires now ravaging California, Oregon, Washington and other Western states are so destructive that wildlife in some areas may struggle to recover.
“Some of these places we set aside may be fundamentally impacted by climate change and may not be able to come back,” said Amy Windrope, deputy director of Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. “That’s just a reality.”
With millions of acres across the west blackened by fire, the impact on humans has been clear: Lives lost, tens of thousands of people forced to flee their homes, possessions and livelihoods destroyed, and state and federal fire fighting resources have been stretched beyond the limit.
Residents are even beginning to question whether the changing fire danger will make their hometowns too dangerous to inhabit. Less obvious is the long-term impact to native species.
Maps: Fires and Air Quality in California, Oregon and Washington
Where major fires are burning in the Western states and how unhealthy air quality has become.
Wildlife officials all over the West are grappling with how to respond now that the existence of habitats set aside for threatened species appear to be imperiled by megafires made worse by climate change.
“It’s important to make the connection between what’s happening now and climate change,” said Davia Palmeri, policy coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We now have to think about climate change when managing wildlife.”
Fire that raced through the sagebrush steppe country of central Washington this month destroyed several state wildlife areas, leaving little more than bare ground. The flames killed about half of the state’s endangered population of pygmy rabbits, leaving only about 50 of the palm-sized rabbits in the wild there.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” Ms. Windrope said. “We have very little sage brush habitat left for them, and it will take decades for this land to recover.”
The fires also destroyed critical breeding grounds for endangered sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse, and officials estimate the fast-moving flames may have wiped out 30 to 70 percent of the birds. The survivors are left without the critical brush cover they need to raise young.
Fire is common in central Oregon, but the intensity of the fires this month has not been seen in generations, said Molly Linville, whose family has ranched in Douglas County, Wash., for nearly a century. Ranchers in the area were unable to get cattle out of the way and many died. On the range they found deer and other wildlife staggering around, severely burned.
“One neighbor girl found a porcupine who had all his quills burned off. It took the longest time to even figure out what it was,” she said. “They took it in and I think it’s going to be OK, but the land — it’s going to take years to come back.”
In Oregon, the fires have largely raged in western pine forests, prompting different concerns. Several endangered and threatened species, including the northern spotted owl and the weasel-like pine marten, depend on the mature mountain forests that bore the brunt of the fires.
“It’s too soon to tell the impact,” Ms. Palmeri said. Birds can fly out of harm’s way, animals can seek refuge underground, but some wildlife may return to find the old-growth forests they rely on gone.
The impact of hundreds of thousands of acres of barren slopes may spread well beyond the fires’ reach and remain once the flames are out. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is bracing for winter rains that could wash ash and silt into local streams and impact endangered salmon.
“We’re already thinking about how we can respond to that,” Ms. Palmeri said. “It’s important we do this restoration work now to try to minimize the impact.”
Newsom says he will soon announce new measures to tackle climate change.
Gov. Gavin Newsom of California on Wednesday said he would announce more action in coming weeks to combat the effects of climate change and also pushed back against President Trump’s suggestion earlier this week that the warming of the planet was not contributing to the wildfires that have plagued the West.
“There are no Democratic thermometers and Republican thermometers,” Mr. Newsom said. “It’s a question of whether or not you acknowledge facts.”
Still, the governor sought to walk a fine line in characterizing his interaction with the president over climate change as forceful but not counterproductive for communities that desperately need aid from the federal government.
On Wednesday, Mr. Newsom highlighted that the state planned to work with the United States Forest Service to significantly increase the number of acres treated with prescribed burning, a measure scientists increasingly describe as essential for clearing fuel and rehabilitating ecosystems damaged by decades of total fire suppression.
He also noted that California has long been a leader on environmental policy — dating back not only to his predecessor, Jerry Brown, a Democrat, but also to the tenures of Republican governors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan.
Pressed by reporters on whether a fund-raising email in which he claimed to have “confronted the President about what’s happening here,” belied what appeared to be a largely polite interaction, Mr. Newsom said he does not expect to change Mr. Trump’s mind.
“We’ve been forceful in our policymaking,” he said. “We’ve been forceful in our resolve and we’ve been direct in our rhetoric.”
Millions of acres burn in California as weather improves in Northwest.
The prospect of scattered rain in the Pacific Northwest raised hopes for better firefighting conditions in Washington and Oregon on Wednesday, after weeks of oppressive heat, hazardous air and unpredictable fires that have grown with terrifying speed up and down the coast.
Though the storm system was not forecast to be significant, the possibility of rain clouds in coastal regions — instead of smoke plumes and falling ash — was a lifeline for residents after weeks of increasingly grim news. More than 30 people have died in wildfires in the past two months, hundreds of homes have been destroyed, and thousands of people remain in evacuation shelters.
Inland and to the south, the forecast was less encouraging. Parts of Central Oregon were expecting gusts up to 35 miles per hour in the afternoon that could contribute to a “significant spread” of new and existing fires, the National Weather Service in Medford, Ore., said. Up to 29 fires were active in the state on Wednesday, spread over more than 843,500 acres.
And in California, there was not even temporary relief in sight, with the state fire agency saying Tuesday, “With no significant precipitation in sight, California remains dry and ripe for wildfires.” State leaders, facing not just this wildfire season, spoke about the need to face an indefinite future of fires worsened by climate change.
“Firefighters themselves, with decades of experience, are telling me that they’ve never seen fires like this before because of the extreme aridity combined with wind,” Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington State said at a news conference Tuesday.
As of early Wednesday, there were at least 25 major wildfires and fire complexes, the term given to multiple fires in a single geographic area, burning in California, Christine McMorrow, a Cal Fire information officer, said.
More than 2.8 million acres have either burned since August 15 or are on fire now, she said.
Late Tuesday, emergency officials reported progress on some of the biggest fires around the region. The growth of the Beachie Creek fire, which has burned more than 190,000 acres east of Salem, Ore., had slowed, and the fire was 20 percent contained as of Wednesday morning. The August Complex fire, which has burned almost 800,000 acres north of Sacramento, was 30 percent contained, and the 220,000-acre North Complex fire, to its east, was 18 percent contained.
Governor Inslee said that Washington State was now in position to help its neighbors, if in a small way, by sharing some of its resources with Oregon.
“We’re confident right now that we have enough personnel and equipment to protect our communities,” he said. “It’s not a lot but it is a gesture that, again, we are all in this together.”
But he also warned residents of Western states that stepping outside exposed them to some of the worst air conditions in the world. The air, he said, was at “historically polluted levels” and “unhealthy at best and hazardous at worst, according to our state health experts.”
Physical hazards remain even in areas where the fires are no longer active, the authorities also warned. In addition to damaged structures and trees at risk of collapse, hundreds of electrical poles have been burned, leaving live wires on roadways or at risk of falling on pedestrians. And countless trees and branches are now dangers to anyone nearby. In a dashboard video tweeted by the Oregon State Police, a trooper’s car can be seeing driving through the haze of a forested road when a huge tree suddenly collapses on the vehicle.
Fires put this year’s apple crop is at risk in Washington State.
Windstorms and wildfires along the West Coast could have a damaging effect on this year’s apple season. Washington state, the nation’s top apple producer, is expected to see a lower crop volume this harvest season because of recent poor conditions.
Crop volume is expected to decrease 5 to 10 percent, according to the Washington Apple Commission, a nonprofit governing body that promotes the state’s apple industry. The state saw a windy Labor Day weekend, causing dust storms in eastern Washington that led to apples falling off trees and damage to trellis systems. As wildfires have raged within the state and smoke has blanketed multiple regions, crop operations have dwindled because of increased safety risks.
“These extreme weather conditions are difficult on harvest timing, and fruit is maturing so there is specific timing you really need to get fruit off of the trees,” said Toni Lynn Adams, the commission spokeswoman.
Washington state has a fairly dry, arid climate, Ms. Adams said, with the majority of apples produced in eastern Washington. The commission originally estimated crop volume of about 134 million, 40-pound boxes for the 2020-2021 harvest season.
Ines Hanrahan, who owns a midsize farm with her husband where they grow several different apple varieties, said intense wind on Labor Day weekend led to some of her apples bruising, making them not marketable.
“Some of the apples will be compost, they’re not harvestable,” said Ms. Hanrahan, who is also executive director of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission. “And some of the apples have markings now, making it a second grade fruit.”
She also said less sunshine because of haze from wildfires will affect the size for some apple varieties, but so far smoke has not been detrimental to taste.