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Wildfires, winds and extreme temperatures are battering several Western states.
Raging wildfires, windy conditions and a heat wave with temperatures reaching upward of 100 degrees converged in a dangerous combination over the weekend, as extreme weather continued to batter much of the Western United States on Tuesday.
In California, helicopters battled smoky skies overnight in an attempt to rescue dozens of people trapped in the fiery depths of the Sierra National Forest and at least 148 people had been flown to safety by Tuesday morning.
In Oregon, whipping winds and dry conditions have helped fuel fire outbreaks. South of Portland, officials in Marion County implored some residents to “please leave now” as fires that have burned through more than 27,000 acres approached more densely populated areas.
And in Washington State, officials said that 80 percent of homes and structures in Malden, a town of 200 in the eastern part of the state, had been destroyed by fire. Deputies began going door to door and announcing evacuations, but officials said many buildings, including the fire station, post office, city hall and the library, were completely burned to the ground.
“The scale of this disaster really can’t be expressed in words,” said Brett J. Myers, the sheriff of Whitman County, Wash. “I pray everyone got out in time.”
From California to Colorado, the dueling threats left millions of people in the West grappling with dangerous weather conditions on Tuesday, adding to the devastation of a year marked by illness and job loss during the coronavirus pandemic.
A gender-reveal celebration gone wrong ignited a wildfire that consumed thousands of acres east of Los Angeles, and utility companies were shutting off power for more than 170,000 customers in Northern California, where record amounts of land have burned this year.
In Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert said that the State Capitol building would be closed on Tuesday because of “high winds and dangerous conditions.”
And in Colorado, fiery conditions and 101-degree weather are giving way to another extreme: a rapid cold front. Snow was falling in Denver on Tuesday morning.
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Helicopters have flown dozens of people to safety as the Sierra National Forest burns.
As the fires rage on in California, almost 150 people were rescued on Tuesday morning in the Sierra National Forest, according to the state’s National Guard.
A video posted to social media showed dozens of people, some with their dogs in tow, dressed in hiking clothes and big backpacks, as they stepped off a California National Guard helicopter after being rescued.
More than 360 people and 16 dogs have been rescued in recent days from the Creek Fire, which has grown to almost 144,000 acres and is still zero percent contained.
After several rescue attempts were thwarted by thick smoke Monday night, the weather cooperated enough for the National Guard to access some remote areas and complete rescue missions overnight, said David Hall, a Colonel in the California National Guard on the “Today” show on Tuesday morning.
Earlier in the weekend, roughly 200 people were rescued from the Mammoth Pool Reservoir Area after being trapped by the Creek Fire, crowding into California National Guard helicopters as embers rained down. Two people were in serious condition from burns.
Even as the greatest concern was focused on the Creek Fire, some two dozen other fires were burning up and down the state, prompting warnings that more residents in some places could be forced to evacuate. The Bobcat Fire is raging in the Angeles National Forest, east of Los Angeles, raising fears that it could get worsen with predictions of high winds Tuesday evening and threatening communities in the foothills.
Also in Southern California, the El Dorado Fire burned over 10,000 acres in San Bernardino County. And closer to San Diego, the Valley Fire churned through more than 17,000 acres and forced some communities to evacuate.
The fires burning now are adding to an already brutal toll for California in 2020. As of Monday morning, Cal Fire reported that eight people have died and more than two million acres have burned across the state this year, destroying more than 3,300 structures and narrowly edging out a 2018 record for most acres burned in a single year.
Malden, Wash., is ‘pretty much devastated throughout.’
A wildfire has destroyed about 80 percent of homes and structures in the town of Malden, turning the eastern Washington town into “a kind of moonscape,” Sheriff Brett J. Myers of Whitman County said Tuesday as officials surveyed the damage.
The fire ripped through the town of about 200 people within three to four hours on Monday, Sheriff Myers said, devouring many prominent buildings and between 75 and 90 homes.
“It’s pretty much devastated throughout,” Mr. Myers said in an interview on Tuesday.
Authorities believe the fire originated on a nearby road in Spokane County, and was fueled by extremely high winds, standing timber and dry fields.
There were no reported injuries or deaths yet, Mr. Myers said on Tuesday, but he noted that an urban search and rescue team would be arriving from Spokane to verify that there were no casualties from the fire.
“The fire will be extinguished but a community has been changed for a lifetime,” Mr. Myers said in a statement on Monday. “I just hope we don’t find the fire took more than homes and buildings.”
Local news images posted on social media showed thick smoke as flames devoured buildings, cars and homes. The little that remained of some structures, such as the post office, was badly charred and building debris was scattered across the surrounding area.
The town of Pine City, about three miles from Malden, was also severely damaged by the fire, officials said.
Chelsea Atchison, who lives in Rosalia, a town northeast of Malden, said that she was working at the Harvest Assembly of God Church in her town, offering food, water, clothes and other necessities to evacuees from Malden and Pine City.
“We’ve seen a lot of people who have been visibly upset and emotional over what they’ve lost,” Ms. Atchison, 22 said.
About 15 people have come into the church looking for help, she said, and a few have stayed the night. Some had lost their homes, she said. “As long as we’re needed we will be open,” Ms. Atchison said. “We are here and we want to help our community.”
Wildfires stretched across about 400,000 acres in Washington State as of Tuesday morning, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.
“We’re still seeing new fire starts in every corner of the state,” the state commissioner of public lands, Hilary Franz, said in a statement on Monday evening. “My heart is with all of these families through this tragedy.”
In Colorado, ‘We switched from summer to winter in a day.’
On Monday, the scorched skies around Denver were thick with haze, smoke and ash from a wildfire roaring through the dried-out forests near Rocky Mountain National Park. By Tuesday morning, there was snow on the ground and temperatures had plunged more than 50 degrees.
“We switched from summer to winter in a day,” said David Barjenbruch, a senior forecaster at the National Weather Service in Boulder. Outside his office, an inch or so of snow already sticking to hillsides and tree branches on Tuesday morning offered a preview of a daylong snowstorm that was expected to dump more than a foot in the foothills and mountains and three to six inches around Denver.
Mr. Barjenbruch said the weather had rolled in from north of the Arctic Circle, traveling along the spine of the Rocky Mountains. Some of Colorado’s ski resorts, which have been preparing for a socially distanced ski season, were expected to get an early dump, though probably not enough to last till they open around Thanksgiving. Live cameras showed that mountain passes were already a blur of white.
Across Denver, people were hauling potted herbs and flowers indoors and wrapping their bushes in burlap and plastic. Mr. Barjenbruch said one of the biggest threats posed by the storm was that overloaded tree branches, still leafed out for summer, could snap and tumble onto power lines.
Forecasters and fire crews were hoping that the snow might damp the Cameron Peak fire in Northern Colorado, a blaze that exploded to more than 102,000 acres and forced a round of evacuations on Monday. Sheriff Justin Smith of Larimer County said the respite from a record string of 90-degree days and punishing drought across Colorado was “certainly not going to stop this fire,” the Colorado Sun reported. It remains to be seen whether fire conditions bounce right back to hot, windy and dry, but Mr. Barjenbruch said snow was already falling on the fire on Tuesday.
“It’s going to hang on trees and give the fire no fuel to burn, and give firefighters a chance to catch up,” he said. “This is the best thing that could’ve happened for this fire.”
PG&E has shut off power to tens of thousands of customers over wildfire fears.
The strong winds, hot temperatures and dry conditions along the West Coast sent utilities scrambling to keep the lights on, even as California’s largest electricity provider cut power to 170,000 of its customers to prevent wildfires.
Utilities in Oregon and Washington State reported that tens of thousands of their customers were without power on Tuesday. But nowhere has the power grid been more under siege than in Northern and Central California, where more than two million acres have burned and scorching temperatures have prompted calls by the system managers for federal assistance.
Late Monday, Pacific Gas & Electric began the largest safety power shutoff of the year in 22 counties across Northern and Central California. Some customers could remain in the dark for as long as two days.
PG&E, the state’s largest power provider, just emerged from bankruptcy this summer, after amassing $30 billion in liability from wildfires in 2017 and 2018, including the devastating Camp Fire that killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise. The utility pleaded guilty to manslaughter for all but one of the deaths and for starting the fire, sparked by the failure of a 100-year-old tower.
Since the Camp Fire, PG&E has worked to improve its safety and prevention measures, including use of intentional safety blackouts. The widespread use of the tactic a year ago left millions in the dark for as long as a week, angering residents, business owners and government officials. Regulators ordered PG&E to limit cutting power to a measure of last resort.
A heat wave last month led the manager of the state’s electric grid to order rolling blackouts to customers throughout the state because of fear of electricity shortages, though some experts argued that the problem was planning and management of the system.
PG&E officials said extreme weather conditions this week forced the company to use the program, again.
Southern California Edison, the state’s second largest utility, experienced record electricity demand Saturday and Sunday, as days of temperatures above 100 degrees tested the electricity grid’s ability to keep up.
There is a strong link between California’s wildfires and climate change, experts say.
While California’s climate has always made the state prone to fires, the link between human-caused climate change and bigger fires is inextricable, said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “This climate-change connection is straightforward: warmer temperatures dry out fuels. In areas with abundant and very dry fuels, all you need is a spark,” he said.
“In pretty much every single way, a perfect recipe for fire is just kind of written in California,” Dr. Williams said. “Nature creates the perfect conditions for fire, as long as people are there to start the fires. But then climate change, in a few different ways, seems to also load the dice toward more fire in the future.”
Even if the conditions are right for a wildfire, you still need something or someone to ignite it. Sometimes the trigger is nature, like the unusual lightning strikes that set off the L.N.U. Lightning Complex fires in August, but more often than not humans are responsible, said Nina S. Oakley, a research scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Whether it is downed power lines or the fire ignited last weekend by smoke-generating fireworks as part of a gender-reveal party, humans tend to play a part — and not just in the initial trigger of a blaze, she said.
“You also have the human contribution to wildfire,” which includes the warming that has been caused by greenhouse gas emissions and the accompanying increased drying, as well as forest policies that involved suppressing fires instead of letting some burn, leaving fuel in place. Those factors, she said, are “contributing to creating a situation favorable to wildfire.”
‘We lost our home’: A small California town was hit hard by the Creek Fire.
It was an old company town tucked away in the Sierra Nevada, where life revolved around shifts at the Edison hydroelectric plant. Neighbors visited at the post office and had coffee at a general store that smoked its own meats. And every wildfire season, the threat of destruction loomed like the granite rock faces towering over their town.
On Monday, residents of Big Creek, Calif., population 200, began coming to grips with the reality that this time much of their tiny community in the Sierra National Forest northeast of Fresno had burned.
“We lost our home,” said Nettie Carroll, 40, who taught science and has lived in the area for 16 years. “It looks like everything is completely gone.”
Big Creek residents who fled the galloping Creek Fire over the weekend said that more than a dozen homes had been incinerated. The Creek Fire had burned 135,000 acres by Tuesday and was zero percent contained, according to Cal Fire, the state fire agency.
From hotel rooms in Fresno and Modesto or family members’ spare bedrooms where they had fled, Big Creek’s evacuees spent Monday sending one another photographs of flames and char and comparing notes on what had survived and what had not.
The school, which has just 47 students, appeared to suffer some damage but was still standing, residents said. They said the community church, volunteer fire department and post office all apparently survived.
The fire also forced workers to evacuate the 1,000 megawatt Big Creek hydroelectric project, which can power 650,000 homes and was America’s first large-scale pumped hydro plant of its kind with the ability to produce power and store electricity. There was no immediate indication the plant had been damaged.
One fire in California was caused by a gender-reveal celebration.
An elaborate plan to reveal a baby’s gender went disastrously wrong when a “smoke-generating pyrotechnic device” ignited a wildfire that consumed thousands of acres east of Los Angeles over the holiday weekend, the authorities said.
The device ignited four-foot-tall grass at El Dorado Ranch Park on Saturday morning, and efforts to douse the flames with water bottles proved fruitless, Capt. Bennet Milloy of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, said Monday. The family called 911 to report the fire and shared photos with investigators.
No injuries or serious structural damage were immediately reported.
Criminal charges were being considered, but would not be filed before the fire is extinguished, Captain Milloy said. Cal Fire could also ask those responsible to reimburse the cost of fighting the fire, he added.
Gender-reveal celebrations became popular about a decade ago as a way for new parents to learn the sex of their child, often in the presence of family and friends. Simple versions of these celebrations often involve couples cutting open pink or blue cakes, or popping balloons filled with pink or blue confetti.
In April 2017 near Green Valley, Ariz., about 26 miles south of Tucson, an off-duty Border Patrol agent fired a rifle at a target filled with colored powder and Tannerite, a highly explosive substance, expecting to learn the gender of his child.
When placed with colorful packets of powder and shot at, Tannerite can fill the air with colorful residue for gender-reveal parties: blue for boys or pink for girls.
The resulting explosion sparked a fire that spread to the Coronado National Forest. It consumed more than 45,000 acres, resulted in $8 million in damages and required nearly 800 firefighters to battle it. The border agent immediately reported the fire and admitted that he started it, the United States Attorney in the District of Arizona said in September 2018.
Reporting was contributed by Tim Arango, Jack Healy, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Sarah Mervosh, Christina Morales, Ivan Penn, John Schwartz, Kate Taylor, Lucy Tompkins and Allyson Waller.