OROVILLE, Calif. — Jeremiah Keller toddled around, clad only in his last diaper, the hot, smoky air surrounding him. His mother — exasperated from two days of fleeing, seeking help, wondering about the future — struggled to stop the 18-month-old from running into the parking lot.
The family has done a lot of running in the past few days.
As wildfires closed in on towns across California, they and thousands of others had to evacuate, leaving the fates of their homes and their neighbors a mystery as the fires blazed through dry lands. As of Monday, 14 fires raged from northern to southern California, part of what authorities say is an astounding number of wildfires fueled by the grasses and plants that boomed after the winter rains and dried during weeks of intensely hot summer days.
Areas in several other Western states were put on alert Monday due to continued dry weather and winds.
Jeremiah and his parents had landed at the Church of the Nazarene in Oroville, the baby wearing the last of a package of diapers, the only thing his mother, Brandy Keller, could grab when the family fled their home over the weekend. The family had moved into a 37-acre orchard about a month ago to help work the land.
“We were at McDonald’s when we heard that people were evacuating,” she said. “But we went back to the ranch to make sure everyone could get out, and the fire was so close. I know what people mean now when they say fire breathes on you. It felt like an open oven or like really hot breath right in your face.”
More than 200,000 residents in and around Butte County, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, have been evacuated from their homes in the past six months. This time for fire, the last time for water.
In February, most people in this region south of the Oroville Dam were forced out of their homes when the dam’s spillways began crumbling under heavy rains, prompting fears of a massive washout. This week, more than 4,000 were evacuated — with another 7,400 told to prepare to leave — as a wildfire ripped through the hills, torching 5,600 acres, destroying 17 structures, and injuring four firefighters.
“In some counties, we’re literally fighting floods from the snow melt and then fighting wildfires just a few miles away,” said Ken Pimlott, California state forester and the director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (also known as Cal Fire), the state agency charged with protecting 31 million acres of state and private land.
The Wall Fire here started Friday, was 35 percent contained the following day and has remained that way since. There are nearly 1,600 firefighters working to control the fire, including 29 prison crews, staffed with inmates who use chainsaws to remove brush and dead trees in the fire’s path.
“Nighttime is usually when we can get the upper hand on these fires because there’s typically higher moisture,” said Janet Upton, deputy director of communications for Cal Fire. “That didn’t happen with the first few nights of the Wall Fire. We’re hoping tonight will be different.”
Pimlott said California residents shouldn’t be lured into thinking the wet winter will save them from wildfire season.
“We still have this intense heat for extended periods of time, these triple-digit days — one right after the other,” he said, noting that the winter’s heavy rains helped feed a bumper crop of grass that the fires have been using as fuel. “The wet winter may have delayed the start of the fire season a bit, but it’s catching up.”
There have been 488 fires in California in the past week, Pimlott said.
“I’m going to use the word ‘astounded,’ ” he said. “We are really astounded at just how many fires there have been. In the past few years, we’ve had maybe 150 to 200 fires a week during the most intense part of the fire season.”
The wildfire cycle in California is well-understood: In an uninhabited forest, fires naturally occur and kill off a certain amount of trees and other vegetation. But when there are communities on those lands, brush and trees build up, increasing the fire risk. And many of the fires that authorities now see are caused by people, the result of carelessness.
“Now there are people living in these area, so we can’t let those fires burn because we have to protect the people and their homes,” Pimlott said.
But Pimlott said key aspects of fire prevention — brush clearing and public education programs — have been difficult to pursue because Congress sets a fixed budget for federal firefighting each year. When firefighting costs go above that budget, as they have been for several years, prevention goes unfunded.
“We have to actively manage forests if we’re going to get ahead of these megafires,” Pimlott said. “These are disastrous fires, they have a really damaging impact on soil and watersheds. These aren’t natural fires.”
In Oroville, workers repairing the Oroville Dam are now in the fire evacuation zone. And locals are hoping they’ll have homes to go back to. Most can’t afford to start over, and they’re unsure what’s happening within the blaze. Keller said she doesn’t know what happened to the people on her ranch.
“I don’t know if that whole place has burned down, or if these people I work with every day are still alive,” she said.
This article has been updated to indicate that more than 200,000 residents in and around Butte County have been evacuated during the past six months; the evacuations included residents outside of the county.