The wildfires are spreading at an astonishing rate.
A fast-moving wildfire in Northern California exploded overnight, growing by nearly a quarter-million acres and forcing thousands of people to flee their homes. The fire created apocalyptic scenes as smoke-filled air settled over the Bay Area and produced an ominous orange glow.
As bad as that was, fires appeared even more destructive in Oregon, where officials said a wildfire driven by 45-mile-per-hour wind gusts tore through two towns, destroying more than a thousand homes and raising fears that some people had not been able to escape.
“We expect to see a great deal of loss, both in structures and in human lives,” Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon said. “This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state’s history.”
In one town, Phoenix, Mayor Chris Lux estimated that 1,000 homes may have been lost. In nearby Talent, hundreds more homes were incinerated.
“Everything is completely gone,” said Sandra Spelliscy, Talent’s city manager.
The out-of-control fires added to the crisis that has been unfolding across the West this week. An extraordinary number of blazes, driven by high winds and fueled by recent heat waves, raged in California, Oregon, Colorado and Washington, leaving at least three people dead.
California’s wildfire season is already the most severe in modern history, measured by acres burned. On Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning, the Bear Fire, part of the North Complex Fire, grew at an astonishing rate of a thousand acres every half-hour as it bore down on communities surrounding Oroville. The fire was burning in some of the same areas as the Camp Fire in 2018, which destroyed the town of Paradise.
Local authorities ordered urgent middle-of-the-night evacuations around Lake Oroville, and the Red Cross set up temporary shelters in several communities. As shaken residents worried on Wednesday about whether they would have homes to return to, the authorities said they were assessing damage and trying to determine how many structures had burned and whether anyone had been injured or killed.
More than 2.5 million acres of land have burned in California this year — nearly twenty times what had burned at this time last year — and there have been 2,650 more fires than at this point in 2019.
The state is not alone in battling an unprecedented fire season. In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee said the 330,000 acres that had burned across the state were more than what burned in each of the last 12 fire seasons. Nearly all of the homes and municipal buildings — including the post office and fire department — in the small town of Malden were burned to the ground.
Residents in Southern California were nervously watching as the Bobcat Fire, which began burning on Sunday in Angeles National Forest, less than 25 miles from Los Angeles, grew to 10,344 acres and remained fully uncontained. Strong winds are likely to continue to fuel that and other fires across the West.
Gusts could reach higher than 50 m.p.h. in Southern California, and although the worst of the winds in Oregon has passed, forecasters with the National Weather Service’s Portland office warned that “there is still plenty of wind to come.” To the north, much of the western part of Washington State was under a red flag warning on Wednesday — meaning there are “hot, dry and unstable” fire conditions.
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Two people died in Oregon, and hundreds of homes were destroyed, officials said.
About 35 wildfires fueled by hot, dry winds have burned more than 300,000 acres across Oregon, causing widespread evacuations and possibly destroying entire communities.
Gov. Kate Brown said at a news briefing on Wednesday that some of the towns that have been “substantially destroyed” include Detroit, in central Oregon; Blue River and Vida, east of Eugene; and Phoenix and Talent, in the state’s southwest. Many residents have been rescued, some even pulled from rivers to safety, Ms. Brown said.
Sheriff Joe Kast of Marion County said on Wednesday that crews had found two people dead in a vehicle from a wildfire east of Salem. He said searchers feared that they could find more bodies as rescue efforts continue.
Chris Luz, the mayor of Phoenix, a town of about 7,000, estimated that the area may have lost some 1,000 homes and apartment units. He said that the downtown area was decimated, with many businesses lost, and that the fires continued to smolder on Wednesday.
Mr. Luz said the fire had rushed into town propelled by winds of about 45 miles per hour, leaving residents with little time to evacuate. Some people reported on social media that they were unable to get back to their homes to get their pets. Officials had not found anyone who died in the fire, but Mr. Luz worried that some people may not have gotten out in time.
“It’s just devastating,” Mr. Luz said.
Hundreds of homes and other buildings were wiped out in the nearby town of Talent, the city manager, Sandra Spelliscy, said.
Ms. Spelliscy said residents there also had little time to evacuate, forcing them to leave belongings behind. She said the evacuation was complicated by traffic that had been diverted off Interstate 5 when that highway closed. But she said police officers and other crews worked to get people out of the city, so she was hopeful that everyone had managed to escape in time.
That blaze, known as the Almeda Fire, was also encroaching on the city of Medford, home to about 80,000 people. Videos posted on social media showed flaming hillsides and clouds of smoke approaching the city’s neighborhoods.
Although winds had subsided on Wednesday, the gusts were still problematic, fire officials noted at the briefing, particularly the winds pushing blazes forward on the west slope of the Cascades.
Officials could not provide a count for fatalities or missing people because they have not been able to reach some of the areas hardest hit by the fires, they said, adding that they expect the numbers to rise over the next couple of days.
“The worst fire conditions in three decades persist,” Ms. Brown said.
The sun rose, yet the sky stayed ominously dark in Northern California.
Hours after sunrise on Wednesday residents of the San Francisco Bay Area waited for daylight. Instead they got only the faintest suggestion that somewhere above the smokey skies the sun had indeed risen.
Some called it a nuclear winter. Cars kept their headlights on. Offices towers in San Francisco, where the smoke is mixing with fog, were illuminated as if in the middle of the night.
Across Northern California huge plumes of smoke from a fire that blasted through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada sent giant plumes of smoke high into the atmosphere, blotting out the sun.
The Bear Fire, as it is known, added to the smoke already pumped into the atmosphere by the more than 20 large fires burning across California.
Craig Shoemaker, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento, said the massive volume of smoke from the Bear Fire rose up to 40,000 feet overnight.
“We have a huge cloud of ash and ice,” he said, adding that it resembled thunderstorm clouds.
Fires are essentially creating their own weather, Mr. Shoemaker said.
“Without the smoke it would be a clear day,” he said. “This is all generated from the fires.”
With winds patterns now changing the smoke will be pushed eastward, potentially clearing the air near the coasts, Mr. Shoemaker said. But there is a caveat.
Early in the week winds pushed smoke hundreds of miles into the Pacific Ocean. With wind patterns forecast to reverse, that old smoke will likely be pushed back inland.
The wildfires that ripped through eastern and central Washington this week devastated communities, killing a 1-year-old and leaving the boy’s parents with third-degree burns.
Among the hardest-hit places was the old railroad town of Malden, where deputies rushed through the streets and screamed for residents to flee as the flames roared toward town. By Tuesday afternoon, most of the town’s homes were destroyed, along with City Hall, the post office, the library and the fire station.
“I’ve seen this kind of loss before, dozens of times,” said Royle Hehr, a resident who used to run a flood and fire restoration business in Arizona. “I’ve worked with people who lost everything. I can’t believe this devastation.”
On Wednesday, volunteers handed out doughnuts and bottled water. Portable toilets and hand-washing stations were set up as wispy tails of smoke from smoldering debris — homes, outbuildings, trees, vegetation and power poles — corkscrewed into the late-summer skies.
Four miles down the two-lane county road, three or four large grain bins, filled with recently harvested wheat, continued to burn. One had split open, its commodity ablaze on the ground like sawdust logs.
In northern Washington, a 1-year-old boy was killed in the Cold Springs Fire after the child and his parents attempted to flee their property, the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office said. The family was found along the bank of the Columbia River on Wednesday morning, and the parents were flown to a hospital in Seattle with third-degree burns.
“It’s an extreme tragedy for any loss of life,” Sheriff Tony Hawley said.
The California National Guard is routinely called to help with search-and-rescue operations on land and at sea, but members of the Guard say they have seen nothing like this.
In a scene that played out multiple times over the weekend and into Tuesday afternoon, the National Guard airlifted hundreds of civilians out of the Sierra National Forest, their exits trapped by a dense ring of fire.
Pilots involved in the rescues said it was the most harrowing flying they have done in their careers. Crew members became nauseated from the smoke. They flew up a valley in strong winds, surpassing ridgelines illuminated by fire. They contemplated turning back.
As of noon on Tuesday, 362 people and at least 16 dogs had been evacuated by air from burning forests of cedar and ponderosa pine. The Creek Fire, which ignited on Friday evening, had burned 143,929 acres — five times the size of San Francisco — and was still raging out of control. It is one of more than 20 wildfires in California.
“Every piece of vegetation as far as you could see around that lake was on fire,” Chief Warrant Officer Kipp Goding, the pilot of a Blackhawk helicopter, said in a briefing.
“I’ve been flying for 25 years,” he said, removing a cloth mask to speak. “We get occasionally shot at overseas during missions. It’s definitely by far the toughest flying that I’ve ever done,” he said of the rescue missions in California.
Chief Warrant Officer Joseph Rosamond, the pilot of the Chinook, said in an interview on Tuesday that as someone born and raised in the state, the fires were particularly affecting.
“It’s really sad that California has to go through all these disasters — it seems like one after another,” he said. Over the past four years, the state has suffered fires, flooding, mudslides and an earthquake on the edge of the desert.
“As a citizen of California it gets really draining,” he said.
A firefighter is in critical condition after a battle to save a fire station.
Three firefighters were injured and airlifted to a hospital while attempting to save their fire station from the encroaching Dolan Fire in Central California on Tuesday, the U.S. Forest Service said.
The firefighters suffered from burns and smoke inhalation, the service said, and one was in critical condition.
Fourteen firefighters were at the Nacimiento Station in the Los Padres National Forest as the fire approached on Tuesday morning, and they deployed portable fire shelters, which are usually used as a last resort when firefighters are trapped by blazes.
The Dolan Fire, which ignited on Aug. 18, has burned 93,554 acres in the coastal mountains near Big Sur and was 20 percent contained as of Wednesday. It approximately doubled in size from Monday to Tuesday.
Winds are expected to exacerbate the blazes on Wednesday, with gusts potentially exceeding 30 m.p.h. Some evacuation orders are in effect for communities surrounding Highway 1.
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,” he said. “In areas with abundant and very dry fuels, all you need is a spark.”
“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.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has often held up California as an example of the consequences of climate change, said on Tuesday that he had “no patience for climate change deniers.”
“Never have I felt more of a sense of obligation and a sense of purpose to maintain California’s leadership not only nationally but internationally to face climate change head on,” he said.
A federal report warns of financial havoc from climate change.
A report commissioned by federal regulators overseeing the nation’s commodities markets has concluded that climate change threatens U.S. 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,” concluded the report, “Managing Climate Risk in the Financial System,” which was requested last year by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and set for release on Wednesday morning.
Those observations are not entirely new, but they carry new weight coming with the imprimatur of the regulator of complex financial instruments like futures, swaps and other derivatives that help fix the price of commodities like corn, oil and wheat. It is the first wide-ranging federal government study focused on the specific impacts of climate change on Wall Street.
Perhaps most notable is that it is being published at all. The Trump administration has suppressed, altered or watered down government science around climate change as it pushes an aggressive agenda of environmental deregulation that it hopes will spur economic growth.
The new report asserts that doing nothing to avert climate change will do the opposite.
Reporting was contributed by Mike Baker, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Coral Davenport, Thomas Fuller, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Sarah Mervosh, John Schwartz, Jeanna Smialek, Lucy Tompkins and Will Wright