A Siege of 80 Large, Uncontained Wildfires Sweeps the Hot, Dry West

As fires spread into Washington, Oregon and Montana, the arrival of the Santa Ana winds means more conflagrations for California.

Sep 9, 2020
A firefighter douses flames as they push towards homes during the Creek fire in the Cascadel Woods area of unincorporated Madera County, California on September 7, 2020.

A firefighter douses flames as they push towards homes during the Creek fire in the Cascadel Woods area of unincorporated Madera County, California on September 7, 2020. A firework at a gender reveal party triggered a wildfire in southern California that has destroyed 7,000 acres (2,800 hectares) and forced many residents to flee their homes, the fire department said Sunday. Credit: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Over Labor Day weekend, the fire storms that plagued California and Colorado in August blew up into an unprecedented siege of wildfires across half a dozen western states. Fire scientists and incident commanders warn that a series of almost unheard of events over the weekend—mass evacuations with military aircraft, entire towns torched, megafires blazing in multiple states at the same time—may become commonplace as the West warms.

"The incidence of these extreme events, which are basically outliers, will become more common," said Robert Gray, a forest fire ecologist in British Columbia.

When September arrived, the eyes of most fire watchers were on California, which was beginning to make progress against its second, third and fourth largest fires on record, all of which ignited in rare August lightning storms that unleashed hundreds of fires across the state. Then the holiday weekend kicked off with a new blaze, the Creek Fire, igniting on Friday night. Over the following four days, the new fire exploded to 144,000 acres to become California's latest megafire.

In a days-long series of airlifts, National Guard helicopters rescued nearly 400 campers and hikers surrounded by the fire at Mammoth Pool Reservoir Area, China Peak and Lake Edison in the Sierra National Forest, about 170 miles east of San Jose. At one point pilots resorted to using night vision goggles to try and see through the thick smoke that was thwarting their attempts to land. Combat veterans piloting the choppers said the missions were the most difficult they had ever flown.

By Tuesday morning, the new fire had prompted the evacuation of thousands of people in Fresno, Madera and Mariposa counties.

The Creek Fire helped California break its annual record for the amount of land burning in one year of wildfires, with 2.2 million acres scorched by Labor Day. But the state's most deadly and destructive months for wildfires are still to come. That peak fire season got a head start on Tuesday when the Santa Ana winds that have driven most of the state's most infamous conflagrations arrived weeks earlier than usual.

"This is crazy. We haven't even got into the October and November fire season and we've broken the all-time record," Cal Fire Capt. Richard Cordova told CNN. "It concerns us because we need to get these firefighters off these lines and get them breaks from battling these wildfires."  

California fire crews are catching anything but a break, as more than two dozen major fires burn across the state, including one that forced 15 firefighters attempting to save a ranger station in the Los Padres National Forest just north of Santa Barbara to deploy their fire shelters—small, silver tents that are a wildland firefighter's last chance to survive a fire burning them over. The blaze, the Dolan Fire, left one firefighter critically burned, two others in serious condition and the ranger station in cinders.

Fires Spread Across the West to Washington, Oregon and Montana

But California isn't the only state where the explosion of wildfires threatened firefighters or communities over the holiday weekend. In Montana, three other firefighters were forced to deploy their fire shelters while battling the Bridger Foothills Fire northeast of Bozeman over the weekend. Those firefighters escaped the flames with smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion, but extreme fire behavior had destroyed at least 28 homes in Bridger Canyon. 

Farther west, a fast-moving firestorm on Monday destroyed 80 percent of the buildings in Malden, a farming town with about 300 residents in eastern Washington about 30 miles from Spokane. The fire station, post office, library and town hall all burned along with most of the town's houses.

"The scale of this disaster really can't be expressed in words," said Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers in a statement Tuesday. "The fire will be extinguished, but a community has been changed for a lifetime. I just hope we don't find the fire took more than homes and buildings. I pray everyone got out in time."

When the smoke from the latest conflagrations finally clears, Malden will not be the only community facing such devastation.

The town of Blue River (Oregon) has sustained catastrophic damage," said Lane County Administrator Steve Mokrohisky at an emergency session of the Lane County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday morning. "According to one fire responder, it appears that at least 80 to 100 houses in Blue River were lost.

"We expect that other homes and businesses within the fire area have burned. And we should expect loss of life from this fire."

Boats at the Shaver Lake marina sit docked as smoke hangs in the air during the Creek Fire on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020 in Shaver Lake, California. Credit: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Boats at the Shaver Lake marina sit docked as smoke hangs in the air during the Creek Fire on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020 in Shaver Lake, California. Credit: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Mill City, a tourist destination in Santiam Canyon that was filled with visitors over the weekend, was overrun by the firestorm Monday night and nearby communities including Detroit, Lyons, Mehama, Gates and Idanha were evacuated as multiple wildfires ignited in the canyon.

Then, on Tuesday evening, the Glendower Fire, a brush fire that ignited that morning outside Ashland, Oregon, burned up the Interstate 5 corridor into the towns of Talent and Phoenix, where the wildfire turned into an urban firestorm that ripped into Medford, a city of nearly 85,000 residents. 

A scorching heat wave drove much of the West into extreme fire danger. Over the weekend, Los Angeles County reached 121 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest temperature ever recorded there. And in Washington's Okanogan and Douglas counties on Monday, high temperatures and strong winds helped the Cold Spring Fire run more than 20 miles and jump the Columbia River.

In a news briefing Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington reported that 330,000 acres burned across the state on Monday alone—more than in any of the previous 12 fire seasons.

Colliding Fire Cycles Max Out the West's Firefighting Resources 

For incident commanders and fire scientists, the vast portion of the country in which large fires are burning simultaneously is just as unusual and troubling as the size, speed and severity of the conflagrations.

"It's not just the size of the fires, but the distribution," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the University of California, Los Angeles. "There are big fires burning throughout the West at the same time. Right now the fire resources are completely maxed out."

Typically, one western ecosystem's peak fire season occurs at a different time of year than others. Arizona and New Mexico see the most wildfires in late spring and early summer, whereas California's busiest fire season runs from late summer through the fall. Such staggering of regional fire activity also often occurs in longer time frames, with bad fire years in one area usually matched by slow years elsewhere.

When one area's fire season ebbed as another picked up, firefighting resources could be redistributed accordingly. But with destructive conflagrations burning all along the Pacific coast, north to Montana and east across Utah and Colorado, federal firefighting resources are stretched thin. 

The nation has been at its highest wildfire alert level for the last three weeks, and on Tuesday, the National Interagency Fire Center identified 15 new large fires. On Wednesday, NIFC listed 18 more large fires, for a total of 85 large, uncontained conflagrations across the West.

"Most aspects of what's going on right now are not typical," Swain said. "Anyone who works in fire is overwhelmed."

Swain saw the fires that ignited throughout the Pacific Northwest over the holiday weekend as particularly troubling.

"The entire Cascade Range, they're just on fire, north to south," he said on Monday as he looked over maps and satellite imagery. "I count at least 14 new fires burning in timber in the last 12 hours. That's just me eyeballing smoke plumes. Some of these look like they are tens of thousands of acres since last night." 

"I'm sick, the amount of new fires today is unreal," Washington state fire meteorologist Josh Clark tweeted Monday night. "Early estimates figure 288K acres burned today across the state. Numerous homes and property destroyed, 30K+ without power. Every one of these was 100% human-caused and therefore 100% preventable."

In Colorado, hot, dry, windy conditions led the Cameron Peak Fire west of Fort Collins to more than triple in size over the holiday weekend, to more than 102,596 acres. But, after much of the state endured weekend temperatures in the high 90s, and Denver reached 101 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday, temperatures plummeted on Monday night and snow fell over much of the Colorado high country.

It was "the earliest accumulating snow ever observed in over 130 years of records!" tweeted assistant state climatologist Becky Bolinger after the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University in Fort Collins measured 0.3 inches of snow Tuesday morning. Although the snow staunched the growth of some fires in Colorado and Utah, such volatile weather swings, which are predicted to increase in many areas due to climate change, will often increase the incidence of wildfires as pulses of moisture lead to the rapid growth of grasses and other fine fuels that quickly dry to the point of combustion when hot, dry weather returns.

Five inches of heavy snow fell on the Cameron Peak fire, although incident commanders there and at fires in Utah that also received snow say that won't slow the blazes for long if hot, dry conditions return.

As the Santa Anas Arrive, No Relief for California 

California, as it moves into its peak fire season, is unlikely to see any of the kind of relief Colorado received over the weekend. Instead, the ongoing drought and relentless heatwave are compounding already primed fire conditions.

While most of the fires that plagued California in August were in lower elevation and coastal forests, the Creek Fire is pushing into mountain forests where 163 million trees have died since 2010 due to drought and insect infestation, providing ample fuel for the new fires.

"The fire is burning through areas of peak tree mortality," Swain said. "It's heavy fuel and currently it is probably drier than it has ever been."

Many of those forests are far thicker than trees than they would have been historically, he added, as natural wildfires that would have thinned them out every decade or so have been extinguished for more than a century, leaving the woodlands filled with trees crowded closer together than they would normally grow.

"There's just a lot of fuel in there and it's explosively dry," he said.

Summer holiday weekends usually see spikes of wildfire ignitions, as the public heads out to recreate around flammable landscapes. That's particularly true of California, where well over 90 percent of wildfires are ignited by humans in one way or another. 

One of the most dangerous fires to ignite in California over the Labor Day weekend—the El Dorado fire—grew to more than 10,000 acres in San Bernardino County east of Los Angeles after the explosive device an expecting couple used to create blue smoke for their gender reveal party accidentally ignited the blaze.

Another compounding factor in the wildfires has been the cutoff of electricity. PG&E, the California utility whose power lines have caused numerous fires, including the deadliest in state history, announced Monday that it would cut power to about 172,000 customers in 22 California counties to avoid sparking more blazes. High winds and wildfires in Oregon left nearly 100,000 people there without electricity.

But the greatest wildfire threat in California arrived after the holiday, around noon on Tuesday, when the first of the annual Santa Ana winds arrived to push the record acreage burning in California into the vast forests of dead, dry timber. The winds have already led to new evacuations of towns west of the massive and rapidly spreading Creek Fire.

The Tuesday winds drove another California fire, the Bear Fire, to grow by some 250,000 acres in just 24 hours. By Wednesday morning it was threatening the town of Oroville, which just three years earlier was evacuated when too much rain nearly cause the Oroville dam to fail.

"The stage is set," Swain said. "This autumn looks like it will be warmer than average and drier than average. I just don't see any mitigating factors as far as fire in California until winter."

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