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Wildfires Lead to Helicopter Rescues in California and Destruction in Washington


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, with at least 362 people flown to safety by Tuesday afternoon.

In Oregon, fires in Santiam Canyon east of Salem blanketed the city in such thick smoke that the sky was an apocalyptic orange. The Oregon Department of Corrections evacuated 1,450 inmates from three nearby prisons, and the Marion County Sheriff’s Office shared a video of multiple structure fires in Mill City.

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. Officials said many buildings, including the fire station, post office, city hall and the library, were completely burned to the ground.

This year’s wildfires have been ferocious.

Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington said on Tuesday that an estimated 330,000 acres had burned across the state on Monday, more than what burned in each of the last 12 fire seasons. “The devastation is all over our state,” Mr. Inslee said in a news briefing.

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California said in a briefing that at this time last year, 118,000 acres had burned, compared with 2.3 million acres this year. That already makes this the biggest wildfire season in the state’s modern history, measured by acres burned.

Mr. Newsom is dealing with multiple crises, including wildfires, a heat wave, electricity shortages and the coronavirus pandemic. He warned that high winds forecast for Tuesday night and Wednesday, from Northern California to the south, could worsen the fires, force more evacuations and prompt power outages to prevent new fires from being ignited.

“We’re resilient,” he said. “We’ll get through this. This is not a permanent state.”

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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 dressed in hiking clothes and big backpacks, some with their dogs in tow, 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 about 152,000 acres and is still 0 percent contained.

After several rescue attempts were thwarted by thick smoke on Monday night, the weather cooperated enough for the National Guard to access some remote areas and complete rescue missions overnight, David Hall, a colonel in the California National Guard, said on the “Today” show on Tuesday morning.

Earlier on the holiday 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 worsen with predictions of high winds on Tuesday evening and threaten 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, the state’s fire agency, reported that eight people have died and more than 3,300 structures have been destroyed.

A wildfire has destroyed about 80 percent of homes and structures in Malden, Wash., turning it into “a kind of moonscape,” Sheriff Brett J. Myers of Whitman County said on Tuesday as officials surveyed the damage.

The fire ripped through the eastern Washington 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. Gov. Jay Inslee said that he would most likely visit Malden on Thursday, and that city officials had told him it looked like a bomb had gone off.

“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 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 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.

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. He said the weather had rolled in from north of the Arctic Circle, traveling along the spine of the Rocky Mountains.

The storm dumped three to seven inches of snow in the foothills around Denver on Tuesday, with mountain passes becoming a blur of white. People hauled potted herbs and flowers indoors and wrapping their bushes in burlap and plastic.

Forecasters and fire crews hoped that the snow might damp the Cameron Peak Fire in Northern Colorado, a blaze that had grown to more than 102,000 acres and was 4 percent contained on Tuesday evening. 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’s going to hang on trees and give the fire no fuel to burn, and give firefighters a chance to catch up,” Mr. Barjenbruch said. “This is the best thing that could’ve happened for this fire.”

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.

Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington said that 100,000 people across the state 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 and Electric began the largest safety power shut-off 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.

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.

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.”

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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 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. But more than a dozen homes had been incinerated, they said.

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.

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 Cal Fire said on Monday. The family called 911 to report the fire and shared photos with investigators.

By Tuesday night, the fire had burned more than 10,500 acres and was 16 percent contained, the authorities said. Evacuations were ordered, including in parts of Yucaipa, a nearby city of nearly 54,000. 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.

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. The resulting explosion sparked a fire that consumed more than 45,000 acres and resulted in $8 million in damages.

Reporting was contributed by Tim Arango, Mike Baker, Jill Cowan, Jack Healy, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Sarah Mervosh, Christina Morales, Ivan Penn, John Schwartz, Kate Taylor, Lucy Tompkins, Allyson Waller and Will Wright





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