Wildfire smoke, which posed a health hazard to millions, choked the west coast of the United States as firefighters battled deadly flames that extinguished some cities and displaced tens of thousands of people.
The death toll from the California, Oregon and Washington fires was 31 and is set to rise sharply. Most of the deaths occurred in California and Oregon.
Those who still had houses were not safe in them. Half a million Oregonians were under evacuation warnings or orders to leave. When air pollution hit historic highs, people would stuff towels under doors to keep the smoke out. Some even wore N95 masks in their own homes.
Some communities resembled the bombed cities of Europe after World War II, with buildings lying on charred rubble on blackened earth. If residents failed to escape when the flames approached, they would perish.
Millicent Catarancuic’s body was found near a car on their two-acre property in Berry Creek, California. The flames came so fast that she didn’t have time to get out. On Tuesday, she packed some of her dogs and cats in the car but later called her daughter to say she had decided to stay. Firefighters had made progress in fighting the fire. The wind was calm. The flames still seemed far away. Then they hurried to the property. “I have a feeling when they came over they might have had an army of cats and dogs with them to help,” said their daughter Holly Catarancuic.
More than 40,000 people have been evacuated in Oregon alone, and there are about 500,000 in various evacuation zones, according to Governor Kate Brown.
Fires along Oregon’s Cascade Range increased on Saturday, albeit at a slower pace than earlier in the week, when strong easterly winds acted like a bellows and two large fires – on Beachie Creek and Riverside – pressed against each other and on the state’s major population centers , including the southeastern suburbs of Portland. Firefighters had good news: higher humidity slowed the flames considerably.
In California, a total of 28 active major fires have burned 1,1330 km² and 16,000 firefighters are attempting to suppress the flames, said Daniel Berlant, associate assistant director of Cal Fire. Large forest fires also continued to burn in northeast Washington. A total of 22 people have died in California since wildfires broke out across the state in mid-August.
Donald Trump will visit California on Monday to find out about the Irish, the White House said. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and the governors of California, Oregon and Washington – all Democrats – have said the fires are a result of global warming. “It is imperative that we act now to avoid a future marked by the endless barrage of tragedy that American families are experiencing in the West today,” said Biden.
The same smoke that colored the California sky orange also helped crews fight the state’s deadliest fire of the year by blocking the sun, lowering temperatures, and increasing the humidity. Smoke also created cooler conditions in Oregon, but it has also been blamed for producing some of the dirtiest air in at least 35 years. The Saturday morning air quality index in Salem, the state capital, was 512. The scale typically ranges from zero to 500. “Over 500 is literally not on the charts,” said Laura Gleim, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Environment. Because air quality has rarely been this bad in the past, the government’s benchmark is limited to 500, Gleim said. The department began monitoring air quality in 1985.
The weather conditions that led to the fires and fed the flames were likely a one-off event, said Greg Jones, a professor and research climatologist at Linfield University in McMinnville, Oregon.
A large high pressure area stretching from the desert in the southwest to Alaska brought strong winds from the east to the west coast, reduced relative humidity to just 8%, and even brought desert-like conditions to the coast, Jones said. Instead of the offshore currents the Pacific Northwest normally enjoys, the strong easterly winds pushed fires down the western slopes of the Cascade Range. It’s not clear whether global warming caused the conditions, Jones said, but a warmer world can make extreme events more likely and add to their severity.