Strong winds could whip the flames toward towns and cities.
Wildfires were ripping through several Western states on Wednesday, destroying homes and forcing thousands of people to evacuate as an extraordinary number of blazes raged in California, Washington and Oregon.
A combination of wind and heat fueled the growing fires, which have led to dramatic escape scenes and smoke-clouded skies. The authorities ordered urgent, middle-of-the-night evacuations as fire tore through the wooded hills around Lake Oroville in Northern California.
Nearly 2.3 million acres of land have burned in California this year — nearly twenty times what had burned at this time last year — and there have been 2,650 more fires than at this point in 2019. The state is not alone in battling an unprecedented fire season.
In Washington State, Gov. Jay Inslee said the 330,000 acres that had burned across the state were more than what burned in each of the last 12 fire seasons. Nearly all of the homes and municipal buildings — including the post office and fire department — in the small town of Malden were burned to the ground.
In Oregon, the fires forced the evacuation of much of Medford, a city of more than 80,000 people about 30 miles north of the California border. Many more residents have been told to expect evacuations as the fires tear up homes and torch hundreds of thousands of acres in the state.
And residents in Southern California were nervously watching as the Bobcat Fire, which began burning on Sunday in Angeles National Forest, less than 25 miles from Los Angeles, grew to 10,344 acres and remained fully uncontained. Strong winds are likely to continue to fuel that and other fires across the West.
Gusts could reach higher than 50 m.p.h. in Southern California, and although the worst of the winds in Oregon has passed, forecasters with the National Weather Service’s Portland office warned that “there is still plenty of wind to come.” To the north, much of the western part of Washington State was under a red flag warning on Wednesday — meaning there are “hot, dry and unstable” fire conditions.
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Helicopter pilots say these rescue missions are the ‘toughest flying’ they have ever done.
The California National Guard is routinely called to help with search-and-rescue operations on land and at sea, but members of the Guard say they have seen nothing like this.
In a scene that played out multiple times over the weekend and into Tuesday afternoon, the National Guard airlifted hundreds of civilians out of the Sierra National Forest, their exits trapped by a dense ring of fire.
Pilots involved in the rescues said it was the most harrowing flying they have done in their careers. Crew members became nauseated from the smoke. They flew up a valley in strong winds, surpassing ridgelines illuminated by fire. They contemplated turning back.
As of noon on Tuesday, 362 people and at least 16 dogs had been evacuated by air from burning forests of cedar and ponderosa pine. The Creek Fire, which ignited on Friday evening, had burned 143,929 acres — five times the size of San Francisco — and was still raging out of control. It is one of more than 20 wildfires in California.
“Every piece of vegetation as far as you could see around that lake was on fire,” Chief Warrant Officer Kipp Goding, the pilot of a Blackhawk helicopter, said in a briefing.
“I’ve been flying for 25 years,” he said, removing a cloth mask to speak. “We get occasionally shot at overseas during missions. It’s definitely by far the toughest flying that I’ve ever done,” he said of the rescue missions in California.
Chief Warrant Officer Joseph Rosamond, the pilot of the Chinook, said in an interview on Tuesday that as someone born and raised in the state, the fires were particularly affecting.
“It’s really sad that California has to go through all these disasters — it seems like one after another,” he said. Over the past four years, the state has suffered fires, flooding, mudslides and an earthquake on the edge of the desert.
“As a citizen of California it gets really draining,” he said.
While California’s climate has always made the state prone to fires, the link between human-caused climate change and bigger fires is inextricable, said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “This climate change connection is straightforward: Warmer temperatures dry out fuels,” he said. “In areas with abundant and very dry fuels, all you need is a spark.”
“In pretty much every single way, a perfect recipe for fire is just kind of written in California,” Dr. Williams said. “Nature creates the perfect conditions for fire, as long as people are there to start the fires. But then climate change, in a few different ways, seems to also load the dice toward more fire in the future.”
Even if the conditions are right for a wildfire, you still need something or someone to ignite it. Sometimes the trigger is nature, like the unusual lightning strikes that set off the L.N.U. Lightning Complex fires in August, but more often than not humans are responsible, said Nina S. Oakley, a research scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Whether it is downed power lines or the fire ignited last weekend by smoke-generating fireworks as part of a gender-reveal party, humans tend to play a part — and not just in the initial trigger of a blaze, she said.
“You also have the human contribution to wildfire,” which includes the warming that has been caused by greenhouse gas emissions and the accompanying increased drying, as well as forest policies that involved suppressing fires instead of letting some burn, leaving fuel in place. Those factors, she said, are “contributing to creating a situation favorable to wildfire.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has often held up California as an example of the consequences of climate change, said on Tuesday that he had “no patience for climate change deniers.”
“Never have I felt more of a sense of obligation and a sense of purpose to maintain California’s leadership not only nationally but internationally to face climate change head on,” he said.
Reporting was contributed by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Thomas Fuller, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Sarah Mervosh, John Schwartz and Lucy Tompkins.