U.S.|Wildfires Live Updates: More Than Five Million Acres Have Burned
Sept. 15, 2020, 10:25 p.m. ET
The wildfires throughout the West Coast have smothered neighborhoods with some the dirtiest air on the planet. Haze has even reached as far as New York City.
Senator Kamala Harris visited Auberry, Calif., which was ravaged by the Creek Fire. She said the country’s leadership needed “to take seriously these new changes in our climate.”
Here’s what you need to know:
- On the West Coast, leaders plead for ‘all the help we can get.’
- Lighter winds are forecast in California and Oregon, which should aid firefighters.
- Steep terrain near the Mount Wilson Observatory makes fighting a blaze difficult.
- ‘Everything of ours burned.’ A ride through Phoenix, Ore., reveals the destruction.
- Firefighters from Los Angeles traveled 12 hours north to help.
- A sheriff has asked armed vigilantes to stop setting up checkpoints in the fire zone.
- Idaho is fighting several fires, with one devouring about 70,000 acres.
On the West Coast, leaders plead for ‘all the help we can get.’
The wildfires burning on the West Coast became an all but inescapable crisis across the country on Tuesday, with more than five million acres charred in Oregon, California and Washington State, tens of thousands of people displaced and at least 27 people dead. A hazardous shroud of smoke over cities in the Pacific Northwest has grounded flights, canceled classes and smothered neighborhoods with some the dirtiest air on the planet.
In the states where the fires are burning worst, the authorities were trying to adapt to a disaster with no clear end in sight, under conditions deeply exacerbated by climate change. Fires continued to spread in Idaho and in the hills above Los Angeles, where flames threatened the iconic Mount Wilson Observatory. Milky smoke clouded the skies over much of the Midwest and haze reached as far as New York City.
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.
The Bay Area, under a choking blanket of smoke for four weeks, set another record for consecutive warnings about hazardous air. The Oregon State Police established a mobile morgue as teams searched incinerated buildings for survivors and the dead. Alaska Airlines suspended flights out of Portland, Ore., and Spokane, Wash., citing “thick smoke and haze.” And Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon requested a presidential disaster declaration, saying late Monday that “to fight fires of this scale, we need all the help we can get.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom of California met with President Trump on Monday in McClellan Park, near Sacramento, thanking him for federal help and agreeing that forest management could be better — while also noting that 3 percent of land in California is under state control, compared with 57 percent under federal control. The governors of all three states stressed that climate change had made fires more dangerous, drying forests with rising heat and priming them to burn, science that on Monday the president denied.
“The rules of fighting wildfires are changing because our climate is changing,” Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington wrote in an open letter on Monday. “There is no fire suppression plan on this planet that does anyone any good if it doesn’t even acknowledge the role of climate change.”
Addressing Mr. Trump directly, he wrote, “I hope you had an enlightening trip to the West Coast, where your refusal to address climate change — and your active steps to allow even more carbon pollution — will accelerate devastating wildfires like you are seeing today.”
In Senator Kamala Harris’s first appearance in California, her home state, since her Democratic vice-presidential nomination, she met with Gov. Gavin Newsom and local officials and firefighters in Auberry. The community was ravaged by the Creek Fire, which has destroyed nearly 600 structures in Fresno and Madera Counties.
“It is incumbent on us, in terms of the leadership of this nation,” she said, “to take seriously these new changes in our climate and to do what we can to mitigate against the damage.”
Firefighters continued trying to contain the dozens of fires on Tuesday morning. In California, the August Complex Fire, which has burned more than 750,000 acres northwest of Sacramento, was about 30 percent contained, and the Creek Fire northeast of Fresno, which has burned more than 200,000 acres, was about 16 percent contained.
In Oregon, tens of thousands of people were still under evacuation orders and the Beachie Creek Fire, east of Salem, grew to burn almost 200,000 acres.
Lighter winds are forecast in California and Oregon, which should aid firefighters.
With dozens of fires burning through millions of acres in Oregon and California, meteorologists are keeping watch on how the winds and humidity could affect efforts to battle them. While strong wind gusts are still possible, forecasters said that regions with some of the most destructive fires would benefit from gentler winds on Tuesday.
Nearly three dozen fires have burned through more than 950,000 acres in Oregon. In California, the North Complex fire of more than 264,000 acres has been 39 percent contained, while the August Complex fire has burned 755,000 acres, only 30 percent contained.
On Tuesday, winds are expected to ease but smoke and haze will continue to blanket the sky over Northern California, the National Weather Service said. Temperatures will waver between the low 70s to mid-80s in the valley and the North Complex fire region.
“There won’t be much wind over that fire area today,” Jim Mathews, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said. “I don’t think there would be adverse conditions.”
Humidity will be in the teens to low 20s, he said.
“We should see an improvement,” Mr. Mathews added. “More sunshine will be filtering through the smoke and that is due to the southwest flow beginning to stir the atmosphere. But the air quality is still forecast to be unhealthy.”
In Oregon, a “red flag” warning of dangerous fire conditions remained in effect east of the Cascades, and there was little moisture in the air. But most of the larger fires in the state are burning west of the mountains and the firefighters battling them were expected to be spared the higher winds.
“The strongest winds I have west of the Cascades is generally gusts of around 15 miles per hour today,” said Charles Smith, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Oregon.
But east of the Cascades, there will be higher winds and low humidity, making conditions “more dangerous than usual,” Mr. Smith said. “If there are any new fires they will have a problem in their initial attack,” he added, referring to firefighting.
Steep terrain near the Mount Wilson Observatory makes fighting a blaze difficult.
The cameras mounted on the solar tower at the Mount Wilson Observatory in the San Gabriel Mountains can usually pick up the Los Angeles Basin in the distance. But in the past few days, they have shown little but tree tops jutting out of a brown horizon of thick smoke.
“That view is usually like a clear blue sky,” said Tim Thompson, a member of the board of trustees at the Mount Wilson Institute. “It is up high enough that we get away from the smog.”
At just over 5,700 feet, with cameras planted another 100 feet higher or more, the observatory, which was founded in 1904, has had a long established perch from which to view the skies and surrounding terrain.
Now, along with nearby communities, that terrain has put it squarely in the path of the Bobcat Fire, which has grown to about 41,200 acres and is 3 percent contained.
Firefighters worked into Tuesday morning to try to contain the fire and to protect the observatory and the foothills communities. But the fire ranged wider despite their efforts.
There were more than 40 firefighters on the observatory grounds, Mr. Thompson said, adding that they lit a backfire below Mount Wilson, trying to deprive the Bobcat Fire of flammable material.
There was no scramble to move instruments — they are far too heavy. Scientific materials are kept in Pasadena, Mr. Thompson said, but damage to equipment is a concern.
The steep topography of the area has hampered the efforts of about 1,000 firefighters struggling to contain the Bobcat Fire, said Capt. David Dantic, a public information officer for the unified organizations fighting the blaze. At one point, the fire jumped over a ridge, burning through the dry fuel of the terrain and kept going, nestled into a chimney-like feature which assisted its spread.
The fire got close enough to Arcadia and Sierra Madre that the cities issued evacuation orders over the weekend, sending about 305 households into flight, he said.
Other communities are under evacuation warnings. The fire has churned to about a half mile to a mile away from the observatory. “I will say that all of Southern California, you can see plenty of smoke,” Captain Dantic said. “It is a fight we have to make sure we can contain.”
‘Everything of ours burned.’ A ride through Phoenix, Ore., reveals the destruction.
Phoenix, Ore., a town in of 4,500 people about 20 miles from the California border, has seen maybe more destruction from fire than any other town this year.
In the span of a few hours on Sept. 8, the Almeda Fire traveled up the freeway and through Phoenix and neighboring Talent, laying waste to much of the towns. Local officials estimated that the fire destroyed nearly 1,800 homes and businesses.
The ruin was so widespread that a week later, authorities had still blocked entry to the town, worried about the danger of downed power lines and sinkholes. That left Jack Nicas, a Times reporter, standing on the outskirts of town, struggling to find a way in.
Then a yellow school bus pulled up, piloted by a local pastor. “I can take you there,” said the pastor, Lee Gregory. “No one else can.”
What followed was an emotional tour through the destruction. A dozen of the mobile-home parks that housed retirees and immigrant farm workers were destroyed, including where Ramona Curiel de Pacheco lived with her family. Mexican immigrants, they had built a happy life in Phoenix, but now their home was gone and they didn’t have insurance. “Everything of ours burned,” she said. “We couldn’t even get our children’s papers.”
Also burned was Barkley’s Tavern, long Phoenix’s lone bar, built in 1898. Mr. Gregory got out of the bus to peer at the charred remains. “Like most taverns, a place where people found a lot of fellowship and friendship,” he said.
Just past Phoenix, in Talent, Daniel Verner was searching the rubble of his former home for the box that held the ashes of his late wife. She had died of cancer 11 months earlier. Next door, Cherie Grubbs was looking for mementos of her son, who was murdered in 2011.
The neighbors were in a relationship, forged by heartache. “We kind of shared this incredible, unbearable grief,” Ms. Grubbs said. “We kind of thought we paid our grief dues.”
Firefighters from Los Angeles traveled 12 hours north to help.
At 5,500 feet of altitude, Capt. Michael McIndoe and his crew stood on a two-lane mountain road on Tuesday afternoon and watched as giant evergreens burned like torches on the hill above them.
He leads one of five engines deployed from the Los Angeles Fire Department to what is known as the North Complex Fire, which has burned through more than 270,000 acres.
The drive from Los Angeles to the forests northeast of Sacramento took 12 hours, and the presence of the Angelenos is a measure of how the 16,600 firefighters are being deployed to the more than 20 fires burning across Northern California and beyond.
Stronger winds on Wednesday whipped up the flames of the North Complex Fire and pushed it across a clearing that had been plowed by bulldozers. Captain McIndoe was tasked with trying to stamp out any embers that crossed Bucks Lake Road.
“It’s really challenging to stop it,” he said.
Captain McIndoe said he was happy to help his Northern Californian colleagues because he might need them to return the favor as peak fire season arrives in Southern California.
“We know it’s coming for us next month,” he said.
A sheriff has asked armed vigilantes to stop setting up checkpoints in the fire zone.
As wildfires have forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate in the Pacific Northwest, it has also stoked fear in rural communities, where some locals have set up checkpoints manned by armed vigilantes.
False rumors have swirled about left-wing extremists starting fires and plundering abandoned neighborhoods. Spray-painted signs in yards and along rural roads warned that looters would be shot on sight. One ominously promised: “We won’t call your family. Your body will never be found!”
The authorities say they have few reports of criminal activity associated with the fires but that has done little to alleviate panic in rural communities, largely focused on nearby Portland, Ore., which has had downtown protests for months. In Clackamas County, a rural stretch of farms and mountains south of Portland that have been ravaged by the Riverside Fire, the authorities say that calls to 911 increased 400 percent over their normal volume.
“The majority of those calls are actually unfounded,” Sheriff Craig Roberts of Clackamas County said in a news conference on Monday. He said many of the people going into communities were not looters, but residents or neighbors offering help. But his officers have encountered armed citizens stopping people at gunpoint in an attempt to protect communities from looting he said does not exist.
“Please, stop that,” he said. “Call us, let us handle it. It’s illegal to stop someone at gunpoint and many of the people we have seen going into these areas are actually going in to get another load of their personal belongings.”
Alissa Azar, a freelance journalist, was taking pictures along the roadside as fire bore down on the tiny town of Molalla in a farming region an hour’s drive south of Portland. She got down on one knee to snap a photo of a fire danger sign, she said, and when she looked up three men were pointing assault rifles at her.
“They were very hostile, very aggressive, demanding to know what I was doing,” she said. Ms. Azar said the men berated her and two other journalists as they tried to work.
“I’ve been covering the protests since they started, but I didn’t expect to find any kind of confrontation covering the fire,” she said.
Law enforcement has also had to combat unsubstantiated rumors that the fires themselves are the result of left-wing extremists. In rural Douglas County south of Eugene, the sheriff’s office posted a message to Facebook last week warning that rumors and unfounded conspiracy theories were making a bad situation worse.
Idaho is fighting several fires, with one devouring about 70,000 acres.
In Idaho, hundreds of firefighters continue to battle more than a dozen fires burning in steep, dry forests and shrublands.
The largest blaze, the Woodhead Fire, grew to nearly 70,000 acres Monday, forcing the evacuation of about 40 campers and residents in the sparsely populated patchwork of grazing land and National Forest near the Oregon border.
None of the state’s fires compare in size to the megafires ravaging the West Coast, but with resources stretched thin and forecasts calling for continued dry weather, local fire teams were keeping a wary eye on the blazes.
On Tuesday, calm winds slowed the Woodhead Fire’s spread, said Jim Mackensen, a Forest Service spokesman. But, he cautioned, “It’s still chugging away. The winds don’t have to be there, we have such extremely dry conditions that the fire can spread fine on its own.”
Several counties in the state are cloaked in smoke from fires on the coast, prompting the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to issue warnings about unhealthy air for much of the state.
The air quality remains unhealthy in much of the West.
With massive fires scattered from Los Angeles to near the Canadian border, the entire West Coast is swathed in smoke. Many cities on the coast got some relief Tuesday as winds shifted and the apocalyptic orange skies that loomed over places like San Francisco a week ago faded to a gloomy haze.
But farther inland fires continued to churn out massive clouds of smoke that cloaked much of interior in acrid, hazardous air. The entire state of Oregon is under a smoke advisory through Thursday, warning children, the elderly and people with health conditions to stay inside. Around Portland, several school districts canceled classes Tuesday because of the smoke.
Even the haze on the East Coast is the result of the smoke from all the wildfires out west, said Michael Souza, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va.
Mr. Souza said the smoke made its way across the country because of a “perfect combination” of conditions — the way in which the jet stream was being perturbed as well as a high-pressure system that is right over the Great Lakes.
The smoke is very high up in the atmosphere, he said, and the long distance from the fires means that the Eastern United States will not see any apocalyptic skies or air quality concerns.
This is how climate migration will reshape America.
As wildfires burned near his home in Northern California, the climate reporter Abrahm Lustgarten asked himself: Was it finally time to leave for good?
For years, many Americans had avoided confronting the increasing environmental dangers in their own backyards: fires, hurricanes, extreme heat, rising seas.
But this year felt different. Would others finally wake up to how climate change was about to transform their lives? Would they start to relocate?
And if so, was it possible to project where we might go?
To answer these questions, he interviewed more than four dozen experts: economists and demographers, climate scientists and insurance executives, architects and urban planners, and mapped out the danger zones that will close in on Americans over the next 30 years.
What he found was a nation on the cusp of a great transformation. Across the United States, some 162 million people — nearly one in two — will most likely experience a decline in the quality of their environment, namely more heat and less water. For 93 million of them, the changes could be particularly severe, and by 2070, analysis suggests, if carbon emissions rise at extreme levels, at least four million Americans could find themselves living at the fringe, in places decidedly outside the ideal niche for human life.
Then what? One influential 2018 study, published in The Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, suggests that one in 12 Americans in the Southern half of the country will move toward California, the Mountain West or the Northwest over the next 45 years because of climate influences alone. Such a shift in population is likely to increase poverty and widen the gulf between the rich and the poor.
Reporting was contributed by Peter Baker, Lisa Friedman, Thomas Fuller, Christine Hauser, Thomas Kaplan, Dave Philipps and Alan Yuhas.