Dry, gusty conditions could spread the flames even more.
Firefighting teams across the West Coast braced for unpredictable wind gusts and drier weather on Monday, conditions that threatened to make new kindling out of forests and strengthen already dire wildfires that have burned more than five million acres, destroyed scores of homes and left at least 24 people dead.
Disastrous wildfires this season have forced hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes and turned forests, fields and communities into blasted landscapes, covered by hazardous smoke and falling ash.
State leaders have raced for weeks 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 is scheduled on Monday to visit McClellan Park, Calif., east of where a fire, now largely contained, recently burned more than 363,000 acres near Sacramento.
The authorities have warned for days not to expect relief soon, saying that even though winds could help disperse some of the smoke that has smothered cities like San Francisco and Oakland, it could also dry out brush and fan flames, reversing the progress firefighters have made. The winds, caused by a slow-moving storm system off the coast of Oregon, were expected to last most of the week and could push smoke to Montana, Idaho and even Canada, meteorologists said.
“Fundamentally the science is very, very simple,” said Philip B. Duffy, a climate scientist who is president of the Woodwell Climate Research Center. “Warmer and drier conditions create drier fuel,” he said. “What would have been a fire easily extinguished now just grows very quickly and becomes out of control.”
The season has already felt out of control to many officials, as fires have leapt across highways, merged into large “complex” fires, destroyed towns and approached dense suburbs. The town of Paradise, Calif., where more than 80 people died fires two years ago, is now on the edge a fire to its east, the North Complex Fire, that is one of the largest in the state. To its west is California’s largest: a group of fires called the August Complex that had burned more than 877,000 acres as of Sunday.
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Some of the worst conditions remained in Oregon, however, where more than 30 active fires have burned 900,000 acres. The Beachie Creek fire, a blaze south of Portland that has destroyed almost 200,000 acres and killed four people, continued to burn uncontrolled on Monday morning. As the state issued evacuation orders and smoke warnings on Sunday, Gov. Kate Brown also tried to remind residents of the other persistent threat to their lives.
“It’s hard to believe this can all happen at once, but in addition to the wildfire crisis, Covid-19 is still very much with us,” she said on Twitter on Sunday. “Protect your neighbors by wearing a face covering, keeping distance & washing hands.”
When President Trump flies to California on Monday to assess the state’s raging forest fires, he will come face to face with the grim consequences of a reality he has stubbornly refused to accept: the devastating effects of a warming planet.
To the global scientific community, the acres of scorched earth and ash-filled skies across the American West are the tragic, but predictable, result of accelerating climate change. Nearly two years ago, federal government scientists concluded that greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels could triple the frequency of severe fires across the Western states.
But the president has used his time in the nation’s highest office to aggressively promote the burning of fossil fuels, chiefly by rolling back or weakening every major federal policy intended to combat dangerous emissions. At the same time, Mr. Trump and his senior environmental officials have regularly mocked, denied or minimized the established science of human-caused climate change.
Now, as he battles for a second term in the White House, Mr. Trump has doubled down on his anti-climate agenda as a way of appealing to his core supporters. At a rally in Pennsylvania last month, he blamed California’s failure to “clean your floors” of leaves, threatening to “make them pay for it because they don’t listen to us.”
The lethal fires spreading across the West — like the coronavirus that has ravaged the country for months — are a warning for the president that many voters may hold him and his administration accountable for brushing aside scientific experts and failing to effectively mobilize the government to minimize natural disasters that have claimed lives, damaged property and threatened economic prosperity.
“Talk to a firefighter if you think that climate change isn’t real,” Mayor Eric M. Garcetti of Los Angeles, a supporter of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mr. Trump’s Democratic opponent, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “It seems like this administration are the last vestiges of the Flat Earth Society of this generation.”
Mr. Trump’s climate record is far more aggressive than the laissez-faire environmental policy promoted for years by business interests in his party. Indeed, as he has sought to zealously roll back regulations, even some of the world’s largest oil companies and automakers have opposed the moves, saying that they will lead to years of legal uncertainty that could actually harm their bottom lines.
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.
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 on a California exodus: ‘Where are you going to go?’
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, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Coral Davenport, Thomas Fuller, Jack Healy, Adam Nagourney, Jack Nicas, Michael D. Shear and Alan Yuhas.