SAN FRANCISCO – In a hellish landscape of smoke and ash, authorities in Oregon, California and Washington state fought to contain mega-forest fires on Sunday.
The arrival of the stronger winds on Sunday tested the determination of firefighters, already exhausted from weeks of fighting flames that consumed around 5 million acres of parched forests, burned numerous communities and caused the world’s worst air quality in many places on planet Earth.
“There’s just so much fire going on,” said Ryan Walbrun, a fire weather meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “And so much smoke.”
The fires, which killed at least 24 people in the last week alone, have put fear and fear in the region as the exhibition grounds have become refugee camps for many who have been evicted from their homes. The suffocating smoke cast a dark pallor across the sky, creating a vision of a climate change catastrophe that turned worst-case scenarios for the future into a terrible reality for the present.
“I drove 600 miles across the state and never escaped the smoke,” said Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, on Sunday TV show “This Week.” “We have thousands of people who have lost their homes. I could never have imagined that. “
As the west burns, there is a consensus among scientists about the role climate change plays in the size and intensity of fires.
“Basically, the science is very, very simple,” said Philip B. Duffy, a climate researcher who is president of the Woodwell Climate Research Center.
“Warmer and drier conditions produce drier fuel,” he said Dr. Duffy, a physicist. “What would have been a fire that could now be easily put out is growing very quickly and getting out of hand.”
Winds are often the deciding factor between fires that can be controlled and those that move so violently and quickly that authorities can best get people out of the way.
Mr Walbrun, of the National Weather Service, said winds generated by a slow-moving storm system off the coast of Oregon were expected to last most of the week, blowing at 15 to 30 miles per hour. The winds could have the positive effect of clearing some of the noxious smoke that floats in the atmosphere from Los Angeles to Seattle. For firefighters, the shift in wind means a 180-degree change in direction in many areas, which jeopardizes their progress in containing the fires.
The National Weather Service issued a “Red Flag Warning” because of the prospect of windy and dry weather in southern Oregon and nearby California counties.
In California, where catastrophic fires have occurred every year since the destruction of the wine country north of San Francisco in 2017, the fires are invading many of the previously burned areas and adding new trauma. The city of Paradise, which killed more than 80 people in a firestorm in 2018 and destroyed most of the buildings, is on the verge of one of the largest fires currently raging in the state.
In Oregon, for decades, flames have invaded areas untouched by fire.
“We have never been near anything like this,” said Margot Cooper, who has lived in Scio, Ore., An agricultural and logging town southeast of the state capital, Salem, for three decades. “It’s the first time it’s literally in our back yard.”
At nearby Gates, Ore., Refugees were exhausted from the fires after living in dingy motels or cars for five days, eating donated pizzas for dinner, not knowing whether their houses were burned down or standing.
Police cruisers blocked traffic along a freeway into the mountains east of Salem, where the Beachie Creek fire was still spiraling out of control. Some families got through. Other convoys of pickups drove on back roads and flew over the edges of the fields in search of alternative routes. Some searched for needed medication, others lost pets and signs of break-ins.
“Everything is still on fire,” said Mike Alexander, 29, who has been coming and going since Monday night when the devastating fire shot up the hillside behind his house.
Some evacuation warnings eased in areas south of Portland on Sunday. But many cities remained inaccessible. Police officers set up a hotline on Sunday that people in the burned resorts on Lake Detroit and neighboring Idanha can use MPs check their homes.
For days, firefighters in Aumsville, a small town outside Salem that was untouched by the fire, have been heading into the mountains to help other firefighters deal with the 188,000-acre Beachie Creek fire. Firefighters used up adrenaline, slept in a donated trailer parked in their parking lot, and then went back into the fire.
“People are prepared, but not for a fire of this magnitude,” said Roy Hari, the Aumsville fire chief.
Most of what was burned in the west was in remote forests, but in Oregon, entire communities along I-5, the main north-south highway along the west coast, were destroyed.
An ongoing problem in California is the number of dead trees in the Sierra Nevada forests, which are home to some of the largest flames. The United States Forest Service has counted 163 million trees killed, mainly as a result of an ongoing drought that ended in 2017.
President Trump is expected to visit McClellan Park in California on Monday to be informed of the forest fires. After weeks of silence about the fires, Mr Trump confirmed their severity on Saturday. “I spoke to the people in Oregon, Washington,” he said. “You have never had anything like it.”
In Gates, where dozens of houses burned down, Darren Richardson, 55, and his neighbors have become an improvised fire department. They filled rain barrels, kiddy pools, and small tanks at a nearby fire station, and patrolled their streets and backyards, digging around property lines and trying to put out fires burning in tree stumps.
“I’m not going,” said Mr. Richardson that weekend, camouflaged and with a shotgun in his right hand, as he stood in front of his house. “I saw the whole city burn down.”
Thomas Fuller reports from San Francisco, and Jack Healy from Gates, Ore. Jack Nicas contributed to the coverage of Phoenix, Ore.