While not as deadly or damaging to property as blazes here in recent years, the fires have set in motion a seasonal displacement of weary Westerners, many of whom are now accustomed to packing “go bags” each late-summer season when forced evacuations have become commonplace.
In California, where two dozen major wildfires are burning, a new round of fast-moving blazes sparked up over the weekend just as thousands of people began returning to homes evacuated only last month because of a different set of fires. More than 2.2 million acres have burned in the state this year, a modern record with the traditional fire season still weeks away.
It is a measure of how quickly the West’s climate is becoming one of extremes — periods of soaking rains followed suddenly by high heat — that the old record was set just two years ago. More than 3,300 buildings — homes, farmhouses, wineries — have been reduced to ash this year.
“It’s become a yearly thing that we dread, and this year it has come early,” said Jeff Okrepkie, whose house in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park was destroyed in the Tubbs Fire in October 2017.
Okrepkie, who works for an insurance agency, and his family moved into their rebuilt home in February. The Tubbs Fire wiped out their neighborhood, and last year, the Kincade Fire forced the evacuation of more than 100,000 people in his county. For weeks, he and members of the Coffey Park Facebook group have been watching smoke from the Walbridge Fire, just north of Santa Rosa, that flared up again overnight on Monday.
“There is anxiety, stress and fear,” Okrepkie said. “And people here are trying to manage this in the best way they can. It is a very strange head space to be in right now.”
As fire season increasingly has become a year-round event in the American West, each has taken on a character of its own.
Three years ago, wine country and this county burned, the first in a series of mega-fire years. Two years ago was California’s deadliest wildfire season, when the Camp Fire destroyed the foothills town of Paradise, killing 85 people and burning more than 17,000 homes and other buildings.
Last year, more than 200,000 people fled their homes under forced evacuations or warnings; this year, more of the state has burned than ever, with the season of dangerous winds — known across the state as Diablos, Sundowners and Santa Anas — still ahead.
Many of the fires burning now are far from major cities, and as of Tuesday, no deaths had been attributed to any of them, although more than 42,000 people remain under mandatory evacuation orders. Weather forecasts suggest that flames heading east in recent days and away from city centers could be turned around by an expected wind shift.
On Tuesday, red-flag warnings signaling a high fire threat stretched along the entire West Coast from the U.S. border with Mexico to Canada, including much of California and Nevada, western Oregon and Washington, along with western Arizona and southern Utah.
Strong winds swept areas in and around Seattle and Portland, Ore., with wildfire concerns in both areas. In some places, winds have been strong enough to knock out power, leaving tens of thousands without electricity in high temperatures.
Here in California, with the early arrival of offshore winds, red-flag warnings have been issued for much of Northern and Southern California, as well as the Sierra Nevadas and their foothills, as critical fire weather migrates from north to south.
California’s Creek Fire, which is burning fast through expansive dry stands of trees on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, destroyed half the homes in the tiny town of Big Creek over the weekend and stranded dozens of holiday campers along the shores of a reservoir.
At the same time, a wildfire in Washington state wiped out much of Malden, a town of 200 people south of Spokane in the state’s far east. The National Weather Service on Tuesday placed Northwest and southwestern Oregon under an extreme fire danger warning, the first time southern Oregon has been the subject of such a warning, according to the Oregon Climate Office.
The Portland area was covered in a smoky haze Monday afternoon and overnight, as strong winds toppled trees and led to widespread power outages. The smoke from the nearby wildfires prompted a warning that the smoke could be dangerous for the young and the elderly, as well as for those already most at risk for covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
The stiffening winds in California threatened to push existing fires into more-populated communities, particularly in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.
“It’s hard to come up with a scenario that is higher-risk,” said Noah Diffenbaugh, a professor and climate scientist at Stanford University. “We haven’t gone into a wind event in California with this many large fires burning. Just from that perspective, we are in uncharted territory.”
The fires are taxing the West’s ability to fight them and, here in California, are testing an electrical grid stressed by record heat and the stay-at-home regimen demanded by the coronavirus outbreak.
More than 14,000 firefighters are battling flames from San Diego County in the far south, where the Valley Fire has blown up to nearly 20,000 acres, to the Creek Fire in the state’s parched center.
Smoke has hampered some air operations, and the California National Guard was called in Friday evening to carry out the evacuation of 214 stranded campers and 11 pets from the shores of Mammoth Pool Reservoir. National Guard officers said it was the largest operation of its kind they have carried out in recent memory, and state officials said 164 more people were being evacuated by air Monday.
At the same time, state and local officials urged residents over the long weekend to conserve energy in any way possible. Rolling blackouts did not occur, thanks in part to millions of utility customers shutting off big appliances and other electricity drains during peak hours. State residents still used 25 percent more energy this weekend than the average summer day peak.
The conservation request has been met with some ridicule here, given the squeeze residents have been experiencing because of other government instructions. State officials already had told residents to stay home over the holiday weekend to avoid coronavirus infection, a request that led to a far higher rate of power consumption than usual. Some counties closed beaches during the historic heat wave.
Woodland Hills, a city in northern Los Angeles County, reached 121 degrees over the weekend. That is the highest temperature ever recorded in that county or in any of the three directly north of it. Those are among a sweep of counties stretching from Point Conception to the Mexican border that are among the fastest-warming in the Lower 48 states during the past century and a half.
Two fires are spreading east of Los Angeles amid the heat, one allegedly started by fireworks set off at a gender-reveal party. Winds also fanned the Walbridge Fire in Wine Country, north of San Francisco, that began three weeks ago amid thousands of lightning strikes.
Anticipating dangerous offshore winds, Pacific Gas and Electric shut off power to 172,000 customers in several Wine Country counties early Tuesday morning, an inconvenient, preventive measure the company has employed during the past two years. The utility, which has a long history of safety lapses, is liable for fires started by its power lines and other equipment.
“We are altogether engaged, not only in this moment but in the medium- and long-term solutions to these extreme events that have almost been normalized here,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said during a midday news briefing.
“I have no patience for climate-change deniers,” he added. “You may not believe it intellectually, but you can believe what is in front of your own eyes.”
While the Southern California fires are burning closer to larger towns and cities, the Creek Fire in the western Sierra has proved to be the most frightening and dramatic, burning so hot and fast that it sent plumes of smoke 50,000 feet into the air.
The fire, fueled by dense patches of overgrown pines and tree trunks killed by bark beetles and drought, doubled in size within the Sierra National Forest to about 135,000 acres overnight. It has scarred more than 143,000 acres in just four days.
The speed overwhelmed groups of campers, who had been warned to prepare to jump into the reservoir if the flames reached them. They did not have to, as the flames were held off by the treeless buffer around the reservoir. After evacuation by air, some were hospitalized with injuries including smoke inhalation and broken bones.
In many ways, the Creek Fire is a sign of the times and of things to come.
Temperatures in the area remain unseasonably high, and the region has not seen significant rain since early spring. Historically, fires would burn through the Sierra every 50 to 150 years, naturally clearing the dead wood that serves as fuel.
Those fires have been corralled in recent decades, and the forests have thickened to dangerous levels, despite controlled burns and other efforts to manage and clear brush.
“Now these forests are dense enough that when you have these dry fuels and a little fire, it’s a combination that creates the conditions for these catastrophic fires,” said Eric Vane, a U.S. Forest Service official at the Tahoe National Forest. Like others in the region, it has been closed to overnight campers because of the fire danger.
“We’re not catching up to where we need to be in terms of creating these more fire-adapted ecosystems,” Vane said. “This leads to a whole host of issues, including the ability of a forest to regenerate itself when there isn’t a living tree within a mile.”
Samantha Schmidt in Portland, Ore., and Diana Leonard and Andrew Freedman in D.C. contributed to this report.