• Thu. Dec 3rd, 2020

California Firefighter Dies in Blaze Sparked by Gender-Reveal Celebration

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Videos show the continued spread of fires near Los Angeles and in parts of Oregon.CreditCredit…Eric Thayer for The New York Times

A firefighter has died battling a fire ignited during a gender-reveal party.

A firefighter died while battling a fire that was sparked during a celebration to reveal the sex of a baby in Southern California, the authorities said on Friday, the 26th person to die in the fires that have consumed California this summer.

The firefighter’s death in the El Dorado Fire was the latest tragedy caused by blazes that are torching the western United States. Fires have burned across more than five million acres in California, Oregon and Washington, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes and sending smoke pouring into cities far from the flames.

In California, the fires have burned across more land this year than in the last two years combined. Of the 10 largest fires to burn in California since 1932, five came this year. In Oregon, fires have burned across nearly one million acres, destroying entire towns.

Firefighters were also tackling a new blaze that broke out near Palm Springs, Calif., on Thursday and had burned through 2,500 acres by Friday morning. The blaze, known as the Snow Fire, was threatening several homes in the unincorporated community of Snow Creek, which was under an evacuation order.

The firefighter who died in California was killed on Thursday, the U.S. Forest Service said, while working in the San Bernardino National Forest on the El Dorado Fire, which has burned through more than 19,000 acres since Sept. 5. Officials have blamed a “gender-reveal” party for starting the fire, saying that a family’s attempt to use a smoke-generating device to reveal a baby’s sex instead ignited nearby grass and quickly spread.

The family had tried to douse the flames with water bottles but were soon outmatched, Capt. Bennet Milloy of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, said at the time.

Criminal charges were being considered, Captain Milloy said before the firefighter’s death, but would not be filed before the fire was extinguished; it was about two-thirds contained as of Friday morning. The family had called 911 to report the fire and later shared photos with investigators. Captain Milloy said Cal Fire could also ask the family to reimburse the cost of fighting the fire.

“I can’t speak on their behalf,” Captain Milloy said of the family, “but personally, I can only imagine how terrible they have to feel for a lot of reasons.”

Nearly 95 percent of fires in California are caused by people, and the vast majority are unintentional, but people who accidentally set off large blazes have been criminally charged in some cases.

One man spent two years in prison after prosecutors said a blade from his lawn mower struck a rock near Redding in 2004, causing a spark that started a fire that destroyed dozens of homes. In 2003, a hunter who got lost in a forest in San Diego County set a fire in hopes of drawing authorities to his location, but the fire ultimately burned over 200,000 acres and killed 15 people. That man was sentenced to community service.

Evacuations are ordered as a fire spreads near Palm Springs.

ImageEvacuations were ordered in the community of Snow Creek, Calif., early Friday.
Credit…Frederic J. Brown/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In Southern California, blazes old and new have prompted additional evacuations as fires encroach on residences and other buildings.

A vegetation fire that was sparked Thursday afternoon northwest of Palm Springs, Calif., has now consumed 2,500 acres — more than doubling overnight — and is zero percent contained. More than 180 firefighters had responded to the scene of the rapidly expanding fire, named the Snow Fire, and dozens of residents in the Snow Creek were ordered to evacuate, the state firefighting agency, Cal Fire, said.

“The fire is now creeping down and is threatening several of the homes in the Snow Creek area,” Capt. Fernando Herrera of Cal Fire said on Thursday evening. Firefighters who arrived Thursday at the fire in the San Jacinto foothills reported that flames from a burning vehicle were extending into surrounding vegetation, according to the Riverside County Fire Department.

And in the San Gabriel Mountains outside of Los Angeles, the Bobcat Fire, which began on Sept. 6, had burned more than 60,500 acres as of Friday and was 15 percent contained. Officials had previously announced evacuation orders for parts of the Antelope Valley, but new mandates were ordered on Thursday in the foothills north of the fire, including the areas of Juniper Hills and Devil’s Punchbowl.

Steep terrain near the fire has made it difficult for officials to fight the blazes threatening the Mount Wilson Observatory. As of Friday, the fire remained active near the observatory, but crews have so far been successful in protecting the structure, officials said.

Dry and windy conditions were pushing the fire forward, officials said. “Firefighters are doing a lot of work, and putting in a lot of hours,” Jerry McGowan, the Bobcat Fire incident commander, said at a community meeting on Thursday.

Daryl Osby, the chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, called the state’s wildfires “unprecedented.”

“Here we are in 2020, and this is the worst year ever as it relates to wildfires in California,” Mr. Osby said.

Thunderstorms brought some relief to Oregon, and the threat of debris slides.

Credit…Adrees Latif/Reuters

Thunderstorms spread across much of Northwest Oregon on Thursday night, clearing some of the lingering wildfire smoke and most likely improving air quality, the National Weather Service in Portland said. The most intense thunderstorms avoided the significant burn areas, so the danger of debris falling down from canyons onto residences or highways was lessened.

Still, the risk of debris remains a concern as the fires have burned through a tremendous amount of the moss and vegetation holding rocks in place. In some parts of the Willamette Valley, an inch and a half to two inches of rain fell in less than an hour on Thursday.

“Objects are a lot more susceptible to falling loose and falling down the hill” in the first rains after a wildfire, said Colby Newman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Portland.

Forecasters were also expecting intense showers in the afternoon into the early evening Friday, but they were not expected to be as severe as those that passed through the northwest of the state on Thursday evening. Dry lightning, Mr. Newman said, was not expected — these storms will be quick and hold plenty of rain, he noted.

Though the Portland metro area is still seeing highly unhealthy air quality, it should improve as rain showers continue, as it already has in areas south of Salem, Mr. Newman said.

Heating from the sun will also help clear out some lingering smoke that was trapped in these areas, Mr. Newman said. The thunderstorms, Mr. Newman noted, will be “beneficial for the most part.”

The risk of landslides could linger for years.

Josh Roering, a geologist at the University of Oregon, said the region also faced a significant longer-term landslide hazard, beginning three or four years from now, when the roots of burned trees lose their strength to hold the soil in place. Then a heavy rain could saturate and destabilize an entire slope, causing it to slide.

With climate change leading to more extreme rainfall, the risk of this kind of landslide increases.

In Oregon, potentially more so than in California, in the next decade there will be a continuing and significant threat from the current fires, Dr. Roering said.

“There is this longer-term kind of hangover that makes all of Western Oregon areas that have burned vulnerable to a different kind of landslide,” he said.

The state already experiences these kinds of landslides from clear-cutting by timber companies.

The effect is the same for clear-cutting or a severe fire: With the trees on a mountainside gone, the roots eventually deteriorate. The soil layer in the Cascades is relatively shallow — shallower than in much of California — and can become saturated in a heavy rain. Without the roots holding it in place, the soil can give way as a discrete mass and slide down the mountain, Dr. Roering said.

Gold Rush towns have been threatened by the fires.

Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Of the hundreds of homes rendered to ash by a ferocious wildfire this month in the mountains on the northeastern edge of California, one had particular historical significance. Mountain House, a former stagecoach hotel with its saloon-style second-story balcony and steep roof, was a relic of the gold rush, a stop on the way to the mining towns that dot the thickly forested slopes and canyons of the Sierra Nevada.

The gold rush, which helped transform a thinly populated territory into the magnet of talent and adventure-seekers that California would become, sent hundreds of thousands of people into the hills — “wanderers from the whole broad earth,” in the words of one 19th-century observer.

But the state’s wildfires are challenging the survival of some of the oldest and most storied of the frontier settlements in California. A fabled American way of life feels increasingly precarious in the era of climate change and the fast-moving and often unstoppable fires that come with it.

The far-flung communities of the Sierra have long attracted rugged go-it-alone types, and they are accustomed to danger, everything from wildfires to rockslides and avalanches. But this year’s fires have been menacing even for the most hardened among them. Those who did not lose their homes live on a hair trigger, choked for weeks by thick smoke and always girded for a quick escape.

“We’re just hanging on,” said Danielle Massy, a cook and mother of two from Portola, a city of about 2,000 people that served as a trading post during the gold rush. “Stuff is pretty wild right now.”

Four disasters cost more than $1 billion each in August.

Credit…Bryan Denton for The New York Times

There were four billion-dollar weather disasters in the United States last month, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said on Thursday: the derecho storm that hit the Midwest, Hurricanes Isaias and Laura, and California’s wildfires.

While that is not a record for financial damage in a single month, it highlights the growing cost of climate change in the country. The most billion-dollar disasters in a month, five, occurred in April 2011, NOAA officials said, and were related to storms and tornadoes.

A hotter planet makes strong wildfires more likely in areas that tend to be dry because heat further dries the fuels in a forest. And because warmer air can hold more moisture in areas that tend to be wet, hurricanes and other storms can hold more water and produce serious flooding.

This month, a report commissioned by federal regulators concluded that climate change posed a growing threat to United States financial markets, as the costs of wildfires, storms, droughts and floods spread through insurance and mortgage markets, pension funds and other financial institutions.

“A world wracked by frequent and devastating shocks from climate change cannot sustain the fundamental conditions supporting our financial system,” the report said. That study, focused on the economic impacts of climate disasters, did not specifically address the human toll of climate disasters. The wildfires in the West have killed at least 30 people. Smoke is known to cause health problems far beyond fire zones.

NOAA holds a climate forecast briefing each month, but Thursday’s had special resonance because it came with fires still burning in the West and in the aftermath of Hurricane Sally.

The agency said that 2020 was not likely to be the warmest year on record, but that there was a 95 percent probability it would be among the three warmest years. NOAA also predicted that almost the entire United States, with the exception of a small part of Alaska, would be warmer than the historical average throughout the fall, and that the drought currently hitting the Southwest could spread slightly.

Reporting was contributed by Tim Arango, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Thomas Fuller, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Christina Morales, John Schwartz and Allyson Waller.