Western wildfires: Blazes fueled by climate change engulf vast region in crisis

Here are just 11 of the wildfires burning in Washington state, Oregon and California

Sept. 10 | Mountain Home Village, Calif. (Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post)
Sept. 10 | Mountain Home Village, Calif. (Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post)

California, Oregon and Washington state are in the midst of an unprecedented wildfire siege, which has forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, killed at least 16 and damaged or destroyed thousands of residences and businesses.

In California alone, 28 major wildfires were burning Friday, including the state’s largest on record. Five of the state’s top 20 largest wildfires are actively burning. Since the beginning of the year, wildfires have burned over 3.2 million acres in California

In Washington, fires spread rapidly amid howling, dry winds. More than 600,000 acres — the largest burned area in state history since 2015′s historic season — have burned in active fires this week alone, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said Friday.

And in Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown (D) earlier this week described the state’s wildfires as a “once-in-a-generation event,” putting more than 500,000 residents — more than 10 percent of the state’s population — under an evacuation warning or order. This week’s fires have left in excess of 1 million acres charred in the state.

Wildfire experts say they have never seen so many large and rapidly growing wildfires in so many places simultaneously. Many were so severe they manufactured their own weather, including lightning arcing out of the ash-laden sky.

Human-caused climate change is driving fire risks in the West to new heights, enabling more fires to behave in extreme, unpredictable ways.

Warming temperatures made these fires worse by drying out vegetation during a record-shattering heat wave, the second since mid-August. These blazes exploded in size during an outbreak of strong winds that simultaneously hit the Cascades, Sierras and coastal mountain ranges; the gusts pushing the flames down canyons, through campgrounds, past highways and into neighborhoods.

Another factor — decades of fire suppression policies, including a lack of prescribed burning — aggravated conditions further by leaving more material for the fires to burn.

A look at 11 different blazes from these three states shows some of the common features of these blazes — their astonishing speed and terrifying capriciousness.

locator map of the Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires, Washington state

Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires, Washington state

The Cold Springs Fire started Sunday near Omak, Wash. The Pearl Hill Fire started shortly after, on Monday, near Bridgeport, Wash. Both fires spread quickly due to strong winds and low humidity. As of Friday, the fires had burned more than 196,700 acres.

 Sept. 7 |  Azwell, Wash.
Sept. 7 | Azwell, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland/AP)
locator map of the Beachie Creek Fire, Oregon

Beachie Creek Fire, Oregon

Before a severe windstorm on Monday, the Beachie Creek Fire was just 469 acres. That night, it grew to more than 131,000 acres, driven by dry fuels and high winds, prompting evacuations. The fire affected communities in Santiam Canyon, including Lyons and Mehama, killing at least two people.

Sept. 8 | Lyons, Ore.
Sept. 8 | Lyons, Ore. (Mark Ylen/AP)
locator map of the Holiday Farm Fire, Oregon

Holiday Farm Fire, Oregon

The Holiday Farm Fire is burning in the Willamette National Forest. As of Friday, the fire was zero percent contained and had burned over 156,708 acres. More than 400 emergency personal have been assigned to the fire, which started Monday.

Sept. 10 | Nimrod, Ore.
Sept. 10 | Nimrod, Ore. (Andy Nelson/AP)
 Sept. 8, 2020 | Blue River, Ore.
Sept. 8, 2020 | Blue River, Ore. (Andy Nelson/AP)
locator map of the Almeda Fire, Oregon

Almeda Fire, Oregon

Strong, dry winds blowing down mountainsides from land to sea pushed the Almeda Fire toward heavily populated areas on Tuesday, with parts of the city of Medford placed under evacuation advisories. The fire caused widespread damage in Phoenix and Talent, just southeast of Medford.

Sept. 10 | Phoenix, Ore. (Mason Trinca for The Washington Post)
Sept. 10 | Phoenix, Ore. (Mason Trinca for The Washington Post)
Sept. 10 | Phoenix, Ore.
Sept. 10 | Phoenix, Ore. (John Locher/AP)
locator map of the North Complex Fire, California

North Complex Fire, California

A Northern California wildfire that has burned through more than 250,000 acres of land has now killed at least nine people, part of a brutal fire season that includes five of the 20 largest wildfires in the state’s history.

Butte County sheriff’s officials confirmed seven additional deaths from the North Complex Fire on Thursday and said 16 people remain missing in the state’s deadliest blaze this year. At least 19 people have died in California since a “fire siege” began Aug. 15, Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynnette Round said Saturday.

Sept. 9 | Oroville, Calif.
Sept. 9 | Oroville, Calif. (Noah Berger/AP)
Sept. 9 | Butte County, Calif.
Sept. 9 | Butte County, Calif. (Noah Berger/AP)
Sept. 9 | Butte County, Calif.
Sept. 9 | Butte County, Calif. (Noah Berger/AP)

LEFT: Sept. 9 | Butte County, Calif. (Noah Berger/AP). RIGHT: Sept. 9 | Butte County, Calif. (Noah Berger/AP).

locator map of the LNU Lightning Complex, California

LNU Lightning Complex, California

The LNU Lightning Complex is one of the fires that was ignited in August, following a mid-month heat wave and rare surge in lightning strikes from thunderstorms that delivered plenty of sparks but little rain. The fire is now on the state’s top 20 list of largest-ever fires.

Aug. 20, 2020 | Sonoma County, Calif. (Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post)
Aug. 20, 2020 | Sonoma County, Calif. (Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post)
locator map of the Creek Fire, California

Creek Fire, California

The Creek Fire began Sept. 4 in the Sierra National Forest. It grew by more than 100,000 acres in 24 hours during Labor Day weekend, trapping campers, hikers and vacationers. The California National Guard conducted daring helicopter flights to evacuate more than 100 people from the area as the fire grew out of control.

Sept. 7 | Fresno County, Calif.
Sept. 7 | Fresno County, Calif. (Noah Berger/AP)
Sept. 7 | Madera County, Calif.
Sept. 7 | Madera County, Calif. (Noah Berger/AP)
locator map of the Dolan Fire, California

Dolan Fire, California

The Dolan Fire, burning in Los Padres National Forest in California, has grown to more than 111,000 acres this week after strong winds caused it to triple in size. The fire originally began Aug. 18, though the cause is still unknown.

Three firefighters were injured in the blaze Tuesday; two have been released from the hospital, and the third is in stable condition.

Parts of Route 1, which runs along the coast, were closed due to the fire and the falling rocks and debris it caused. The Dolan Fire was 26 percent contained as of Friday morning.

Aug. 22 | Big Sur, Calif.
Aug. 22 | Big Sur, Calif. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
locator map of the Bobcat Fire, California

Bobcat Fire, California

The Bobcat Fire continues to burn deeper into the Angeles National Forest, causing smoke to fill the air over the San Gabriel Valley and surrounding areas around Los Angeles. The fire started Sunday and has burned more than 26,000 acres and is only 6 percent contained, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The Bobcat Fire crossed into Monrovia, Calif., city limits Friday. Fire officials say they have built a defensive line between the fire and the city and have warned residents that evacuation orders are possible.

Sept 9 | Monrovia, Calif. (Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post)
Sept 9 | Monrovia, Calif. (Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post)
Sept 10 | Monrovia, Calif.
Sept 10 | Monrovia, Calif. (David Mcnew/Getty Images)

LEFT: Sept 9 | Monrovia, Calif. (Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post) . RIGHT: Sept 10 | Monrovia, Calif. (David Mcnew/Getty Images).

locator map of the El Dorado Fire, California

El Dorado Fire, California

The El Dorado Fire started Sept. 5 when a pyrotechnic device from a gender-reveal party ignited dry wild grass at El Dorado Ranch Park, about 80 miles east of Los Angeles. As of Friday morning, the fire had burned more than 13,000 acres and destroyed four homes. It is 31 percent contained, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Sept. 10 | San Bernardino National Forest. (Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post)
Sept. 10 | San Bernardino National Forest. (Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post)
Sept. 10 | San Bernardino National Forest. (Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post)
Sept. 10 | San Bernardino National Forest. (Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post)
Sept. 10 | San Bernardino National Forest. (Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post)
Sept. 10 | San Bernardino National Forest. (Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post)

LEFT: Sept. 10 | San Bernardino National Forest. (Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post) . RIGHT: Sept. 10 | San Bernardino National Forest. (Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post) .

locator map of the Valley Fire, California

Valley Fire, California

The Valley Fire in rural eastern San Diego County destroyed dozens of structures and forced evacuations, though those orders were lifted Friday afternoon. The fire has grown to more than 17,000 acres, according to CalFire, and was 39 percent contained as of Friday morning.

 Sept 9, 2020 | Concord, Calif.
Sept 9, 2020 | Concord, Calif. (Brittany Hosea-Small/AFP/Getty Images)
 Sept 6 | Jamul, Calif.
Sept 6 | Jamul, Calif. (Sandy Huffaker/AFP/Getty Images)

About this story

Graphics by Laris Karklis. Angela Fritz, Nick Kirkpatrick and Matthew Callahan contributed to this report.

Andrew Freedman edits and reports on extreme weather and climate science for the Capital Weather Gang. He has covered science, with a specialization in climate research and policy, for Axios, Mashable, Climate Central, E&E Daily and other publications.
Karly Domb Sadof is an award-winning photo editor at The Washington Post, currently working on the national news desk. She is also a contributing writer for In Sight, The Post’s photography blog. She joined The Post in 2016.