Firefighters are stretched as fires tear through California, Oregon and Washington.
As wildfires raged up and down the West Coast on Thursday, officials in Oregon said that one of the most destructive fires, which incinerated whole neighborhoods in two towns, may have been deliberately set.
Three law enforcement agencies in Oregon, including the Ashland Police Department and the State Police, said they had opened an arson investigation for the Almeda Fire, which has been linked to at least two deaths and destroyed roughly 600 homes in the towns of Talent and Phoenix.
Charred residential streets in those communities now resemble moonscapes, and the fire was still raging out of control on Thursday.
With firefighters struggling to contain the blazes, rescue workers made early forays into towns that had been blackened and hollowed out by fires. By Thursday evening, they had discovered at least 15 bodies, and hundreds of homes had been consumed by flames.
Bobbi Doan, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, said about 500,000 people in the state had been subject to evacuation orders.
“We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across our state,” said Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon, where 900,000 acres have burned.
Resources have been stretched thin, as firefighters from Washington and Oregon that had been deployed to California were sent home to fight blazes in their own backyards. As California continued to burn, with more than three million acres scorched, a record in modern history, fire crews were being rushed in from Utah, Colorado and Texas.
The August Complex Fire, sparked by a storm of lightning strikes last month, on Thursday became the largest fire in California history, having burned nearly 740 square miles.
To the north, more than 480,000 acres have burned in Washington State this week, with some communities essentially destroyed, officials said.
“Every firefighting entity in Washington State would like to have more resources right now,” Gov. Jay Inslee said at a news conference late Wednesday. He linked the devastating fire season to climate change, noting the West Coast’s intense heat waves, and invited skeptics to visit a string of badly burned towns: Bonney Lake, Graham, Malden, Okanogan.
In California, the fast-moving Bear Fire grew unabated as one of scores of wildfires across the state. The Bear Fire, burning near Chico, destroyed dozens of homes in Butte County, where 10 people were found dead, hitting the community of Berry Creek especially hard.
In addition to the deaths in Butte County, a 1-year-old boy was killed in the Cold Springs Fire in northern Washington, two deaths were linked to the Almeda Fire in Oregon, and two victims were discovered in a vehicle east of Salem, Ore., according to the county sheriff’s offices.
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Propelled by winds as strong as 45 miles an hour, the Bear Fire northeast of Oroville, Calif., has grown at explosive rates this week, causing 10 deaths as it ripped through mountain communities and forced thousands of people to evacuate.
The fire is still growing, but residents were already beginning on Thursday to learn of the damage across the 252,000 acres it has burned so far. Many will not have a home to return to.
Berry Creek, a community of about 1,200 people, is largely destroyed. On Wednesday afternoon, thick smoke hung over the area and only a handful of houses were still standing. The town’s fire station and its fire truck, parked beside it, were burned. Across the street, the elementary school was destroyed.
Capt. Derek Bell said on Thursday night that the Butte County Sheriff’s Office had found an additional seven victims and was still working to locate missing people.
The Bear Fire is part of the North Complex, which remains 0 percent contained and has destroyed or damaged about 2,000 structures, said Steve Kaufman, a spokesman for Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency.
Calmer winds had slowed its growth, giving officials some hope.
“Winds have decreased dramatically, and hopefully that will remain over the next few days,” said Scott McLean, a spokesman for Cal Fire.
Most Berry Creek residents evacuated the town in a panic early in the week as the fire charged toward them, with a narrow country road the only route to safety. More than 100 people had to be rescued Tuesday evening.
At least 200 structures in the town have been damaged, officials said, adding that they do not know the full extent of the destruction yet, and probably will not for several days.
Many other small mountain communities were also affected by the fire, Mr. McLean said.
Mayor Chuck Reynolds of Oroville told The Sacramento Bee on Wednesday that his city of roughly 20,000 people, which had been under an evacuation warning, had largely been spared by the fire.
Further south, the Creek Fire, near Fresno, remained completely uncontained, growing to more than 175,000 acres by Thursday morning. Thousands of people evacuated their homes, emergency teams searched for injured survivors and the U.S. Forest Service closed all 18 national forests in California, fearing that people could become trapped in the parks.
Towns were wiped out in Oregon, and some Portland suburbs are now under threat.
Extreme fire weather conditions are expected west of the Cascades in Oregon through Thursday, officials said, driving forward blazes that have already destroyed hundreds of homes in the state.
Evacuations expanded in the southern suburbs of Portland overnight, with all of the 418,000 residents of Clackamas County now under some level of evacuation warning and at least half of the county under a mandatory evacuation order.
Six homes and six other structures have already been lost to the flames, the county said, and 400 more structures remained threatened by the fires.
The Almeda fire, which ripped through the communities of Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon earlier this week, forced new evacuations on Wednesday in the city of Medford, the state’s eighth-largest city with about 80,000 residents.
In Phoenix, the mayor estimated that 1,000 homes had been wiped out by the blazes. In Talent, just a few miles south, hundreds more homes were destroyed. “Everything is completely gone,” said Sandra Spelliscy, Talent’s city manager.
Unlike the large wildfires that were sparked in remote areas and have mostly burned through trees and brush, the Almeda fire has moved through populated areas. The wind pushed the fire so strongly that the flames jumped from house to house, igniting entire subdivisions, and creating a dangerous and unstable environment for residents to return to.
“When you have a wildfire, after the fire goes through all that’s left is burned trees, brush, foliage,” said Rich Tyler, a spokesman for the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office. “When you have a fire that burns through homes and businesses, you have open gas lines that are still spewing out natural gas, and those are burning. We have water that is flowing. We have hazardous materials in businesses that we didn’t know of.”
A small Washington town is devastated when a blaze sweeps through.
The wildfires that ripped through eastern and central Washington this week devastated communities, killing a 1-year-old and leaving the boy’s parents with third-degree burns.
Among the hardest-hit places was the old railroad town of Malden, where deputies rushed through the streets and screamed for residents to flee as the flames roared toward town. By Tuesday afternoon, most of the town’s homes were destroyed, along with City Hall, the post office, the library and the fire station.
“I’ve seen this kind of loss before, dozens of times,” said Royle Hehr, a resident who used to run a flood and fire restoration business in Arizona. “I’ve worked with people who lost everything. I can’t believe this devastation.”
On Wednesday, volunteers handed out doughnuts and bottled water. Portable toilets and hand-washing stations were set up as wispy tails of smoke from smoldering debris — homes, outbuildings, trees, vegetation and power poles — corkscrewed into the late-summer skies.
Four miles down the two-lane county road, three or four large grain bins, filled with recently harvested wheat, continued to burn. One had split open, its commodity ablaze on the ground like sawdust logs.
In northern Washington, a 1-year-old boy was killed in the Cold Springs Fire after the child and his parents attempted to flee their property, the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office said. The family was found along the bank of the Columbia River on Wednesday morning, and the parents were flown to a hospital in Seattle with third-degree burns.
“It’s an extreme tragedy for any loss of life,” Sheriff Tony Hawley said.
‘This is a fathomless loss’: Some searches for the missing end in tragedy.
As the blazes raged across California, Oregon and Washington on Thursday, family and friends desperately searched for missing loved ones who remained unaccounted for.
Zygy Roe-Zurz, whose family lives in Berry Creek, Calif., said that his aunt was killed as the Bear Fire ripped through the community, and that his mother remained missing. Authorities told the family that Mr. Roe-Zurz’s uncle was likely dead as well, he said.
“I feel barren — this is a fathomless loss and I will never be the same,” said Mr. Roe-Zurz, 37, who is in Arkansas and last spoke to his mother on Tuesday night, before the flames intensified. “This cruel fire took everything.”
He said that his family members staying at the property in Berry Creek had been under the impression that the fire was getting under control, but that the situation changed dramatically as the Bear Fire jumped an astonishing 230,000 acres overnight Tuesday into Wednesday.
“It’s pretty much a nightmare scenario,” Mr. Roe-Zurz said. “I’m devastated.”
There was better news for other families who found out that loved ones they believed to be missing were found safe on Thursday.
Katy Carmel said her daughter, Natalie Anderson, had been on a camping trip with her boyfriend near the McKenzie Bridge east of Eugene, Ore. But when the Holiday Farm Fire broke out on Monday evening, Ms. Carmel could no longer reach Ms. Anderson.
Ms. Carmel could not sleep, fearing the worst. Days passed and the anxiety built. On Thursday, authorities notified the families that both Ms. Anderson and her boyfriend, Enmanuel Rodriguez, were safe and evacuated.
Ms. Carmel said she was relieved to hear the news, but added, “I’ll be better once she’s actually home.”
No more Martian orange: The sky in San Francisco reverts to gray.
Bay Area residents awoke to smoky gray skies on Thursday morning, and not the otherworldly orange murk that unnerved the region on Wednesday, when soot particles billowing high in the atmosphere filtered the sun’s rays into an eerie daylong twilight.
The National Weather Service said smoky and hazy conditions would probably continue in the Bay Area for the rest of the week, with no rain expected in the wildfire zones of Northern California, Oregon or Washington.
On the plus side, the winds had lightened considerably, making it easier to fight the flames, according to David Lawrence, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Without strong winds to disperse it, the smoke will linger through the weekend, Mr. Lawrence said: “Most of the western halves of Washington, Oregon, and California will be covered by smoke through the next couple of days,” he said. “Overall, it looks pretty hazy.”
Temperatures were expected to be cooler in San Francisco, a break from the searing heat that helped set the stage for state’s worst wildfire season on record.
San Francisco is known for its fog, especially in the summer, but the haze that settled on city’s skyline Thursday was no ordinary sea fog. Air quality in the region remained poor because of the wildfire smoke, and health officials in the city warned people to stay indoors at least through Friday.
The rain the region is craving may finally fall early next week, though it remains unclear how much, Mr. Lawrence said.
“Most areas would take any precipitation,” he said. “We need the weather pattern to change.”
A fire that began last month is now the largest in California’s recorded history.
The August Complex fire that raged in Northern California last month is now the biggest in the state’s recorded history, according to the United States Forest Service.
The fire was sparked by lightning in Mendocino National Forest, midway between Sacramento and the Oregon border, and has consumed at least 471,000 acres. That is 12,000 more than the 459,000 acres that burned in the Mendocino Complex wildfire in 2018.
The August Complex, which started on Aug. 17 as a cluster of 37 different fires, killed a firefighter and destroyed 26 structures, according to forest officials.
The five largest wildfires in California history have all occurred in the last three years. Three of them, including the August Complex, started last month.
Wildfires are ravaging the West — in California alone, five of the largest blazes on record have all struck in just the past four years — offering a deadly reminder that the nation is far behind in adopting policies widely known to protect lives and property, even though worsening fires have become a predictable consequence of climate change.
The accelerating disasters mean the United States needs to drastically rethink its approach to managing fire in the decades ahead, experts warn. “The first step is to acknowledge that fire is inevitable, and we have to learn to live with it,” said David McWethy, a fire scientist at Montana State University.
Millions of Americans are moving into wildfire-prone areas outside of cities, and communities often resist restrictions on development. A century of federal policy to aggressively extinguish all wildfires rather than letting some burn at low levels, an approach now seen as misguided, has left forests with plenty of fuel for especially destructive blazes. This is all in an era when global warming is creating a hotter, drier environment, loading the dice for more extensive fires.
Some cities and states have taken important steps, such as imposing tougher regulations on homes built in fire-prone areas. And there has been movement toward using prescribed fires to scour away excess vegetation that can fuel runaway blazes in forests and grasslands.
But these changes are still happening too slowly, experts say, and have been overtaken by the rapid increase in wildfires.
“At this point we’ve learned a lot about how to engineer homes and communities so that they can be more survivable,” said Max Moritz, a wildfire expert affiliated with the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But these lessons aren’t being implemented fast enough.”
The root cause of global warming is human behavior, and a major part of the solution is to reduce fossil fuel use, which pumps planet-warming gases into the atmosphere. But meantime there are steps that can lessen the wildfire damage even as countries work to cut emissions.
The police are working to dispel social media rumors about activists setting the fires.
Officials dealing with mass fires on the West Coast have been forced to counter social media rumors that the blazes were set by activists.
In Medford, Ore., which saw a blaze that devastated the nearby communities of Phoenix and Talent, the Police Department reported hearing throughout Wednesday rumors that officers had arrested either leftist antifa or right-wing Proud Boys activists for arson. The department made its own Facebook post to say that neither story was true, nor was a fake graphic associated with the rumors, nor were reports of “gatherings of Antifa.”
Still, with no evidence, other social media posts repeatedly pointed suspicion toward antifa — a loosely coordinated group of activists involved in protests in places like Portland, Ore.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday that 911 dispatchers were being overrun with requests for information about an untrue rumor that antifa members were arrested for setting fires. The office said the rumors are making a difficult situation even harder. “Do your part, STOP. SPREADING. RUMORS!” the office said in a Facebook post.
In Oregon, which has suffered catastrophic fires in the last few days, officials haven’t even seen any evidence of such a campaign at the state or local level, said Joy Krawczyk, a spokeswoman with the Oregon Department of Forestry. She said many fires remain under investigation.
“We’re not seeing any indications of a mass politically-influenced arson campaign,” Ms. Krawczyk said.
Officials have previously said that one of the most devastating fires, the Santiam Canyon blaze east of Salem, was started by falling trees that knocked down power lines.
Forecasters had warned in recent days that high winds and parched lands would make for dangerous fire conditions. But officials in Washington State reported one case they believe was arson, arresting a man they say was in a highway median setting a fire. That fire was soon extinguished.
Reporting was contributed by Tim Arango, Mike Baker, Maria Cramer, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Bill Morlin, Brad Plumer, John Schwartz, Lucy Tompkins, Max Whittaker and Alan Yuhas.