After some progress, dry and gusty conditions spark new fire fronts.
Firefighting teams across the West Coast battled shifting winds and drier weather on Monday, sparking new fire fronts that threatened to make kindling out of forests as states struggled to tame flames that have burned more than five million acres this year.
The blazes that began in recent weeks, turning forests, fields and communities into blasted landscapes, have destroyed scores of homes and left at least 27 people dead and dozens more missing.
By Monday afternoon, haze had spread across much of the country and could be seen over New York and Washington, D.C. Heavy smoke kept some firefighting aircraft grounded as fire pushed into new areas, prompting fresh evacuations in Idaho, Oregon and California. In Adams County, Idaho, officials ordered mandatory evacuations for residents threatened by the Woodhead Fire, which was 32 percent contained by Monday evening.
Amid a summer of record heat and dry winds, leaders have for weeks raced to contain one spiraling fire after another, straining their emergency services and prompting them to plead for help from other states and the federal government.
President Trump on Monday visited McClellan Park, Calif., where a fire, now largely contained, recently burned more than 363,000 acres. In a briefing with state officials the president sought to downplay the effects of climate change and blamed the historic fires on poor forest management.
In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown said the state was getting firefighting support from as far away as Michigan. She expressed gratitude for the national support effort, saying the state can use all the help it can get.
“Without question, our state has been pushed to its limits,” Ms. Brown said.
Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, said the state’s confirmed death toll was at 10 on Monday, with 22 other people reported missing.
Doug Grafe, the chief of fire protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry, said crews had made progress containing the state’s fires over the past few days. But he said rains anticipated to fall on Monday were not materializing and winds threatened to exacerbate fire conditions in some areas. Mr. Grafe said the rains that may now come on Wednesday or Thursday could also include lightning and the prospect of new fires starting.
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Trump blames poor forest management. Biden calls him a ‘climate arsonist.’
President Trump visited California on Monday to meet with Gov. Gavin Newsom and local officials for a private briefing on the devastating fire season.
Mr. Trump blamed the wildfires ravaging the West Coast not on climate change but on the failure by Western states to properly manage their forests.
“When trees fall down after a short period of time, they become very dry — really like a matchstick,” the president told reporters after disembarking from Air Force One at Sacramento McClellan Airport, where the stench of smoke filled the air. “And they can explode. Also leaves. When you have dried leaves on the ground, it’s just fuel for the fires.”
The president brushed off a question about climate change, suggesting that the query be put to Mr. Newsom instead.
Environmentalists, state officials and scientists said the scarred countryside and ashen clouds are the predictable consequence of climate change that has gone largely unchecked by Mr. Trump, who has instead rolled back environmental regulations.
Mr. Newsom offered thanks to the president for federal help and agreed with him that forest management needs to be better, but he noted that only 3 percent of land in California is under state control while 57 percent is federal forest land, meaning under the president’s management.
Mr. Newsom said climate change clearly was a factor. “Something’s happening to the plumbing of the world,” he said, “and we come from a perspective humbly where we submit the science is in and observed evidence is self-evident that climate change is real and that is exacerbating this.”
He went on: “And so I think there’s an area of at least commonality on vegetation, forest management. But please respect — and I know you do — the difference of opinion out here as it relates to this fundamental issue on the issue of climate change.”
Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mr. Trump’s Democratic opponent, attacked the president’s record on climate change on Monday, calling the president a “climate arsonist” whose inaction and denial had fed destruction.
In a speech in Delaware, Mr. Biden directly connected the blazes that have displaced thousands of people to climate change, and he also spoke about flooding in the Midwest and hurricanes along the Gulf Coast.
“If we have four more years of Trump’s climate denial, how many suburbs will be burned in wildfires?” Mr. Biden asked. “How many suburban neighborhoods will have been flooded out? How many suburbs will have been blown away in superstorms?”
Most of what has burned in the West has been in remote forests but in Oregon, entire communities along the I-5, the main north-south interstate highway along the West Coast, have been razed.
“We haven’t had anything ever this close,” said Margot Cooper, who for the last three decades has lived in Scio, Ore., a farming and logging town southeast of the state capital, Salem. “It’s the first time it’s literally in our backyard.”
Last week a 13-year-old boy was killed in a nearby canyon, apparently as he attempted to drive his grandmother to safety.
In nearby Gates, Ore., refugees from the fires were exhausted after five days of living in dingy motels or cars, eating donated pizzas for dinner and, all the while, not knowing whether their homes had burned down or were standing.
Police cruisers blocked traffic along a highway heading into the mountains east of Salem, where the Beachie Creek Fire was still burning out of control. Some families were able to pass through. Other convoys of pickup trucks threaded their way onto side roads and skimmed the edges of farm fields in search of alternate routes. Some were seeking needed medications, others lost pets and signs of break-ins.
“Everything’s still on fire,” said Mike Alexander, 29, who has been coming and going since last Monday night, when the wildfire surged up the hillside behind his home.
Some evacuation warnings eased on Sunday in areas just south of Portland. But many towns remained unreachable. Law enforcement officials set up a hotline on Sunday for people in the incinerated lakeside resort towns of Detroit and neighboring Idanha to have deputies check on their homes.
For days, fire crews in Aumsville, a little town outside Salem that was untouched by the fire, have been heading into the mountains to help other firefighters try to get a handle on the 188,000-acre Beachie Creek fire. Firefighters have been running on adrenaline, sleeping in a donated trailer that was dropped in their parking lot, then heading back up into the fire.
The North Complex Fire tore through the tiny California mountain community of Lake Madrone last week, reducing the pine-fringed shore, which was speckled with cottages and frequented by bears and otters, to bare black timbers and ash.
The community had spent years clearing fire breaks and removing forest debris to protect it from wildfire. But roaring winds, high temperatures and a fire storm that raced almost 20 miles in a few days smashed its defenses late last week and destroyed about half of the 130 houses.
“We hoped we had done enough,” said Scott Owen, a resident who lived by the lake. “After watching that fire I don’t think you can do enough. This fire moved like no one had seen before.”
On Monday evening, Sheriff Kory Honea of Butte County announced one additional victim of the fire, which has killed at least 15 people. He said that family members of some of those who died told deputies that the individuals had packed their bags and planned to evacuate, but changed their minds based on false information that the fire was 50 percent contained.
Mr. Owen’s whole neighborhood burned to the ground in the blaze. One neighbor barely escaped, he said, and sheltered from the flames in a creek. On Monday the neighbors were still trying to account for everyone, hoping that authorities would not have to search the debris with cadaver dogs.
Though the flames have moved north, the residents of Lake Madrone have not been able to return yet. Mr. Owen, who has owned a house on the lake for decades, said he was not sure he would rebuild.
“I just think things have changed and we’re going to have more fires,” he said. “This is a record year — who knows where it goes from here.”
Air quality remains a problem. When will it improve?
Smoke from the fires continues to foul the air breathed by tens of millions of Americans, with air quality readings showing harmful levels of pollution in major cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle on Monday.
Even the haze in Washington, D.C., is the result of the smoke from all the wildfires out west, said Michael Souza, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va.
Mr. Souza said the smoke made its way to the Mid-Atlantic because of a “perfect combination” of conditions — the way in which the jet stream was being perturbed as well as a high-pressure system that is right over the Great Lakes.
The smoke is very high up in the atmosphere, he said, and the long distance from the fires means that the nation’s capital will not see any apocalyptic skies or air quality concerns.
So many variables affect air quality that it is practically impossible to predict when and where the air on the West Coast will be safe, said Dr. Mary Prunicki, the director of air pollution and health research at Stanford University’s Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research.
“In the past, it hasn’t looked so dire so quickly,” she said. “It’s pretty scary — and it combines with the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s a layering effect.”
Research has clearly shown that the health impacts from wildfire smoke can be seen immediately in things like cardiac and respiratory distress calls.
And prolonged exposure is harmful. That’s one reason fires disproportionately hurt already vulnerable populations; lower-income people are more likely to live in places where air quality is bad all the time, like the Central Valley of California, which has long had some of the nation’s worst air.
But on the flip side, Dr. Prunicki said, air quality can improve quickly and the dangers can ease quickly, too — “even in an afternoon.”
So in order to determine whether it’s safe to go outside, she recommended checking the Air Quality Index before you leave.
Residents of Vancouver and other communities in British Columbia retreated indoors over the weekend as dense smoke from wildfires in the United States filled the skies, disrupting life in the Pacific Coast province.
The province’s air quality index — established largely to track the effects of national forest fires in the country — reached 10+, its highest rating for pollution, by Monday morning.
“You can actually smell smoke all the time and you can only see about two blocks now,” Chris Johnson, a lawyer in Vancouver, said on Monday morning. “It’s really bad, far beyond what usually comes from forest fires.”
Forest fires, which have been limited in British Columbia this year, often force residents in the province to shelter indoors. But the current retreat has been caused by smoke drifting from the United States rather than blazes elsewhere in the country.
Issa Arrian, a consultant in Vancouver, said that he was initially relieved that the province seemed to have escaped wildfires this year. But now, he said, the smoke has eclipsed 2018, a particularly fearsome forest fire season.
“We don’t have the fires but we have the smoke,” he said. “At least we could own the smoke in 2018. Now it’s like someone is throwing garbage on your lawn and you have to accept it.”
An Oregon man was arrested twice and accused of setting small fires.
A man in Oregon has been arrested twice in less than 12 hours after he was accused of starting more than a half dozen small fires along a freeway, one of them by using a plastic bottle stuffed with a wick, the police said on Monday. None of the fires caused injuries or damage to structures.
The suspect, Domingo Lopez Jr., 45, was first spotted on Sunday afternoon when a brush fire was lit along Interstate 205, a north-south freeway that runs east of the Portland metropolitan area, the Portland Police Bureau said. Witnesses pointed out Mr. Lopez in a nearby tent, where he was arrested about 4:30 p.m. He was booked into the Multnomah County Detention Center on charges of reckless burning and disorderly conduct, the police said.
He was released on Sunday on his own recognizance, inmate records show.
A little after 3:30 a.m. Monday, Mr. Lopez was arrested a second time while walking on the side of a road, with the police saying he had started six more small fires along the freeway.
Firefighters extinguished those fires with the help of residents, the bureau said. Mr. Lopez was given citations for six additional counts of reckless burning and taken to the hospital for a mental health examination, the police said.
It was not immediately clear if he had a lawyer.
Separately, deputies were investigating eight small “suspicious” fires that broke out early on Monday morning in Linn County, in the west-central region of Oregon, Sheriff Jim Yon said.
In a statement, the sheriff said the fires started at about 2:41 a.m., near the cities of Sweet Home and Brownsville. The fires occurred within a two-hour period, the statement said.
And last week, authorities in southern Oregon charged Michael Jarrod Bakkela, 41, with starting part of one of this year’s most destructive fires, saying he lit a fire in Ashland as a larger blaze moved toward the area. The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office said he denied that he had started the large fire nearby.
The Jackson County district attorney charged him with arson, criminal mischief and reckless endangering.
Fire precautions for prisoners leave them vulnerable to the pandemic.
As wildfires tore through huge swaths of Oregon this week, prisoners were hurried away from the encroaching flames — not to freedom but to an overcrowded state prison, where they slept shoulder-to-shoulder in cots, and in some cases on the floor. Food was in short supply, showers and toilets few, and fights broke out between rival gang members.
Safe from one catastrophe, but delivered to another: the coronavirus pandemic, which has spread at an alarming rate in America’s prisons.
“From what we know about Covid-19, how quickly it can spread and how lethal it can be, we have to prepare for the worst,” said Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a prisoner advocacy organization.
Never easy, being incarcerated has perhaps never been a more traumatic experience than it is today, especially on the West Coast where prisoners are more vulnerable than ever to the twin crises of the pandemic and a historic wildfire season made worse by climate change. Virus outbreaks have spread through cellblocks — Oregon’s state prison system has had 1,600 infections over the last three months — and poor ventilation systems have whipped in smoke from the outside.
Before the fires started, the virus spread in America’s prisons partly because authorities carried out routine transfers of prisoners without testing them first for the coronavirus and isolating those infected. Now that fires have forced Oregon officials to move so many prisoners so quickly, without taking precautions against the virus, inmates and advocates worry it is only a matter of time before people fall sick.
“Right now, it’s this situation of, no matter which way you turn there’s something waiting,” said Rasheed Stanley-Lockhart, who was released from prison in California in January after serving 18 years for armed robbery, and now works for Planting Justice, a nonprofit in Oakland that helps newly released prisoners. “Turn here, there’s Covid. Turn here, there’s the fires. You turn here, there’s mass incarceration as a whole.”
Jerry Brown, the former governor of California, could barely make out the mountains in the distance from his ranch in the city of Williams on Sunday. Every few minutes, he picked up his phone to check the latest air quality reading. “Unhealthy,” he said.
Mr. Brown, who served over 45 years in state government and politics, has been warning about this day for years. But he said by telephone from his ranch that he never expected this moment to come so soon. And he never thought the air around his home, which he built in the wilderness of his family ranch, an hour’s drive north of Sacramento, would be this shrouded.
But still, for all the fire and the smoke, Mr. Brown presented himself as the resolute chief ambassador for the state that has so long been associated with the Brown family name. He declared he was not going anywhere and dismissed the latest round of talk about people fleeing California.
“You might say, ‘We are getting out of here — we are going someplace else,’” Mr. Brown, 82, said. “No. There are going to be problems everywhere in the United States. This is the new normal. It’s been predicted and it’s happening. This is part of the new long-term experience.”
“Tell me: Where are you going to go?” Mr. Brown continued. “What’s your alternative? Maybe Canada. You’re going to go to places like Iowa, where you have intensifying tornadoes? The fact is, we have a global crisis that has been mounting and the scientists have been telling us about. For the most part, it’s been ignored. Now we have a graphic example.”
Reporting was contributed by Tim Arango, Ian Austen, Mike Baker Peter Baker, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Kellen Browning, Jill Cowan, Coral Davenport, Lisa Friedman, Thomas Fuller, Christine Hauser, Jack Healy, Thomas Kaplan, Adam Nagourney, Jack Nicas, Aimee Ortiz, Dave Philipps, Michael D. Shear and Alan Yuhas.