|SALEM, Oregon - About 40 large fires are ravaging the three contiguous West Coast states, and Oregon’s governor says some situations have been dire enough to make even firefighters retreat.
Hundreds of thousands of acres are burning and thousands of people have been evacuated in parts of California, Oregon and Washington after extreme heat and high winds combined to let fires tear through territories uncontrolled.
In Oregon, thousands of residents evacuated their homes to escape the flames that have already scorched more than 230,000 acres, Gov. Kate Brown said Tuesday evening.
Fires were threatening homes in places like Clackamas County south of Portland and the Medford and Phoenix areas in Jackson County.
“In some areas, the situation is so difficult and dangerous that even firefighters are being evacuated,” the governor told reporters.
Oregon has experienced “historic wildfires” almost every year in Brown’s time in office, but this year’s fires are “unprecedented,” she said.
“This is definitely a once-in-a-generation event,” Brown said.
In California, more than 20 major wildfires are now raging in a year that already has seen 2.2 million acres charred across the state. That’s a record for the Golden State for one year, and four months remain in the fire season, Cal Fire said Tuesday.
“We have fires burning in the north part of the state all the way down to the Mexican border, about 800 miles between the furthest distant fires, so we’re stretched across the landscape,” Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter told CNN.
In Washington state, more acres were burned Monday than were charred in the past 12 fire seasons, Gov. Jay Inslee said, and dry conditions continue to fuel the blazes. In one eastern Washington town, flames destroyed more than 80% of homes and public infrastructure.
“I just can’t reiterate,” the governor said, “we think almost all of these fires were human-caused, in some dimension. If you can avoid being outside for anything that would even cause a spark, I hope people can avoid those conditions.”
“This is a new reality we’re living in with a changing climate,” he added.
As of Wednesday morning, areas covering more than 30 million people in five Western states — Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and Arizona — were under red flag warnings. These warnings caution that conditions likely to start or spread fires — strong winds and dry conditions — were imminent or happening.
Size of Central Park burned every half hour
In Central California, the Creek Fire, racing through the mountains of Madera and Fresno counties, has destroyed at least 360 structures since the flames erupted Friday evening. The fire has burned through more than 152,000 acres and has no containment. Since it began, the fire has burned an area roughly the size of Central Park every 30 minutes over the past several days.
“We have 150 million trees that died in the southern Sierra several years ago, and those are fueling the Creek Fire, which is the biggest and most concerning fire to us right now,” Porter said.
About 385 people and 27 animals were airlifted by helicopter over the past several days after getting trapped by the fire in the Sierra National Forest, California National Guard Col. David Hall told CNN. At least 30,000 people have been evacuated, Fresno County sheriff’s Lt. Brandon Pursell said late Tuesday.
In San Bernardino County, the El Dorado Fire has grown to more than 11,000 acres and is 19% contained, fire officials said.
The fire, sparked during a gender reveal party, was caused by a “smoke-generating pyrotechnic device” used at the party on Saturday morning in El Dorado Ranch Park in Yucaipa, about 70 miles east of Los Angeles, Cal Fire investigators determined.
‘Urgent and scary to get out’
In Oregon, at least seven large fires burned Tuesday across the state, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Clackamas County, in northwestern Oregon, declared a state of emergency Tuesday as a response to several wildfires that prompted evacuations. Across the county, more than a dozen Level 3 — “Go! Evacuate now!” — evacuations were in place, with several other areas ordered to be ready for evacuations, officials said.
In neighboring Marion County — home to the state’s capital city — another state of emergency was declared Tuesday, with residents across the region forced out of their homes by fires.
One family told CNN affiliate KPTV they had a brief notice to leave their home as nearby flames moved in.
“We drove under a tree that had fallen over and there was burning limbs and it was like urgent and scary to get out,” Sabrina Kent told the news station.
The family is staying in an RV near a local grocery store, according to the affiliate, as they map out their next steps.
“This is the most messed up year, can we just fast forward?” Kent told KPTV.
Oregon’s corrections department announced Tuesday they evacuated three Salem prisons following threats from the Beachie Creek and Lionshead wildfires.
A charred Washington state town
In Malden in Washington state, about 80% of the town’s homes and public infrastructure were destroyed, including the fire station, post office, city hall and library, authorities said.
“The scale of this disaster really can’t be expressed in words,” Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers said.
Fires have already burned through more than 330,000 acres in the state, according to the governor.
Further west, in Graham, a fire that ripped through the area left what residents described as a “war zone,” according to CNN affiliate KOMO. Some lost everything.
At least six houses and three shops were destroyed, according to the news station, along with sheds, equipment and vehicles. The fire department issued evacuation orders for about 100 residents, the station reported.
“It’s devastating for the people who live here for sure, and to me, and my heart. This fire came (through) hot and fast,” Graham Fire & Rescue’s Assistant Fire Chief Steve Richards told the affiliate. “It was a firestorm it pushed right through.”
For the country as a whole, the number of fires recorded and the acreage burned in 2020 are below the 10-year average for the same period, according to National Interagency Fire Center. A total of 41,051 fires have been reported so far this year, while the average number of fires through September 8 over the last 10 years is 43,745, the NIFC says.
The total acreage burned since the beginning of 2020 is 4,729,287, compared with the 10-year average of 5,708,762 acres at this point of the year, the NIFC said.