An unusually expansive outbreak of large and fast-moving wildfires threatens communities in three states Wednesday, with the greatest risks focused on Medford, Ore., and Oroville, Calif., as large fires advance in those areas.

In Oregon on Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Kate Brown (D) announced that four towns have experienced significant damage, and she warned residents to expect news of fatalities.

“Oregon has experienced unprecedented fire with significant damage and devastating consequences for the entire state,” she said. Brown said the communities of Detroit, Blue River, Vida, Phoenix and Talent are “substantially destroyed."

“Hundreds of homes have been lost."

The partial evacuation in Medford, which took place Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, was prompted by one of many new blazes that started Monday and Tuesday.

The wildfires come after a record-shattering heat wave and amid human-caused climate change that is heightening fire risks, along with temperatures, in the West. These blazes are being driven by strong, dry, offshore winds that are causing extreme fire behavior, which can produce everything from mushroom cloud-like plumes of smoke that reach 40,000 feet in height, to vortexes that make it impossible for firefighters to contain an advancing fire.

Here are some significant developments:
  • The Glendowner Fire (also known as the Almeda Fire) has prompted the evacuation of parts of Medford, Ore., a city of 82,000 people, where many fled their homes. Areas to the southeast of the city, including Phoenix, Ore., saw structures destroyed as the fire swept through the region Tuesday evening. At least one fatality has been reported with this fire.
  • Gov. Brown said more than 300,000 acres are burning across Oregon, and that this could be the deadliest wildfire disaster in state history.
  • “This event is unprecedented. I’ve talked to people who have been in fire for 20, 30, 40+ years and they’ve never seen anything like this before. Not this many large, rapidly spreading wildfires across such a broad region,” tweeted Nick Nausler, a fire weather specialist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
  • The Bear Fire that began in a remote region of Northern California advanced rapidly about 25 miles through timber Tuesday evening through Wednesday morning, coming close enough to Oroville, Calif., to prompt evacuation warnings in the area as well as parts of Paradise, Calif. That’s the same town nearly destroyed in a deadly 2018 wildfire. The fire is part of a larger complex that has rapidly burned about 254,000 acres.
  • The U.S. Forest Service has taken the rare step of temporarily closing all national forests in California because of the high fire danger and ongoing blazes.
September 9, 2020 at 8:25 PM EDT
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This is the biggest wildfire outbreak in the U.S. since at least 1910, wildfire specialist says

By Andrew Freedman

The word “unprecedented” tends to be used frequently when discussing extreme weather events and climate change, but when it comes to the ongoing wildfires, experts are left searching for even stronger superlatives.

According to Nick Nauslar, a predictive services meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, what sets this wildfire outbreak apart from all others in modern times is its geographic footprint.

“This event is unprecedented due to the number of large, fast moving wildfires over such a broad region,” Nauslar said in an email. “Multiple fires made 20-plus mile runs in 24-hours over the last few days in California, Oregon and Washington,” he said. Such distances traveled so quickly may not be all that rare in grassland fires, Nauslar noted.

“However, most of these fires are making massive runs in timber and burning tens of thousands of acres and in some cases 100,000-plus acres in one day. The shear amount of fire on the landscape is surreal, and no one I have talked to can remember anything like it,” Nauslar said.

“Nationally, this is probably the biggest wildfire event since the Big Blowup of 1910 and it rivals the past fire season in Australia,” he said.

The Australian fires, however, burned more total acreage, which made their season more severe compared with what’s taking place in the western United States right now.

Nauslar said this widespread fire event drives home the point that fires are not confined to the deep wilderness, away from where most of us live our lives. As with the Camp and Tubbs fires in recent years — each of which caused more than 20 fatalities in California — towns and cities can be directly affected.

“Just like people prepare for hurricanes and severe weather, people need to prepare for wildfires,” Nauslar said.

September 9, 2020 at 8:15 PM EDT
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‘It’s apocalyptic, it really is’: Oregon fire evacuee describes escape

By Emily Wax-Thibodeaux

Kate Kenney, 62, a former waitress, fled her forest cabin near the McKenzie River in Oregon, watching the flames smother the area as she left.

Her neighbor picked her up and said “we have to go now,” after a tree took down a power line and started a fire.

Kenney, who has diabetes, grabbed her insulin and a few important papers, “but there was no time to get anything else.”

That’s was Monday evening. By 10 p.m., they were at the McKenzie Bridge High School, where a shelter was set up, “but it wasn’t five minutes before the firefighters said ‘we gotta go.’ ”

By 1 a.m., she was safely sheltered in a Holiday Inn in Springfield, about three miles east of Eugene, where she may have to live for a month, waiting for the embers to be completely drenched by rain.

When she looks out her hotel room window, all she sees is smoke. Nothing is clear.

“It’s apocalyptic, it really is,” she said. “This fire blew away everything, destroying so much. I heard my house is likely okay. But how do I feel about moving back to charred ruins around me? It’s a lot to think about.”

September 9, 2020 at 7:30 PM EDT
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Why is the smoke so dense in parts of California and Oregon?

By Matthew Cappucci

Thick clouds of wildfire smoke have turned day to night across portions of California and Oregon, with sepia scenes emerging where an amber haze hangs overhead.

“It’s the thickest I’ve ever seen here, and I’ve been here over 10 years,” said Craig Shoemaker, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

Strong inversions, or increases of air temperature with height, “capped” most of the smoke below 10,000 feet across the Pacific coast in Northern California and Oregon. Data from the Bay Area suggested the smoke was particularly plentiful between 3,000 and 6,000 feet.

There is also leftover smoke from previous days’ fires that is present in lesser quantities up to about 25,000 feet.

“It’s up pretty high, it’s actually not a whole lot down near the surface, at least in the Sacramento area,” Shoemaker said. “But it’s thick aloft. You’ve had a lot of smoke over the past several weeks, and it’s not really diffusing out; it’s not really mixing out. It seems like over the Bay Area there, it’s sort of piled up there. It’s kind of a slow pattern such that it’s all consolidated there.”

Weather balloon data Wednesday morning revealed weak winds below 20 mph all the way up to 20,000 feet over Oakland, heights at which the winds are ordinarily much stronger. The lack of any forceful breeze is allowing the smoke to accumulate.

Winds were predominantly out of the west-southwest last week, pushing much of the wildfire smoke into Nevada. But they have since switched around from the east, ushering that old smoke back in as new smoke pours into the atmosphere.

The density of smoke, particularly in the lowest mile of the atmosphere, has blotted out the sun for many Bay Area residents — akin to an extra thick smog bank.

Where strong wildfires were ongoing, smoke ash and smoke material even made it as high as 40,000 feet in strong thunderstorm-like updrafts known as pyrocumulonimbus clouds. Outside of those storms, however, the smoke was lower in the atmosphere.

It won’t be until next week that winds become strong enough in the mid- and upper atmosphere to scour out any of the smoke, Shoemaker said.

“We need a uniform strong wind at all levels, but that’s bad for the fires,” he said.

September 9, 2020 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Forest Service closes all 18 California national forests because of fire conditions

By Matthew Cappucci

The U.S. Forest Service announced the closure of all 18 national forests in California on Wednesday afternoon in response to “unprecedented and historic fire conditions.” The temporary shuttering of national forests goes into effect at 5 p.m. Pacific time on Wednesday.

It’s the first time in history that wildfire conditions have spurred the closure of all California national forests simultaneously, attesting to the severity of the record-shattering fire activity that has plagued the region.

Eight forests had originally been closed Monday evening, but officials with the U.S. Forest Service took the rare step of closing the rest following the “explosive growth of wildfires throughout California.”

The closures cover more than 20 million acres of forest, an area about 26 times the size of Rhode Island.

“These temporary closures are necessary to protect the public and our firefighters, and we will keep them in place until conditions improve and we are confident that National Forest visitors can recreate safely,” said regional forester Randy Moore.

Fire conditions look to abate some with winds easing and temperatures cooling across central California late this week into early next week, but unusually dry weather is likely to persist for the foreseeable future.

September 9, 2020 at 6:05 PM EDT
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‘There’s no place to go’: Tens of thousands of Oregonians evacuate

By Kim Bellware

Beth Zerkel had just arrived to work in Jackson County, Ore., before noon Tuesday when she started to hear about the wildfires.

Within a matter of hours, a Level 3 evacuation order — leave immediately — was issued for the area that included her home in nearby Phoenix. Her husband, Steve, was packing their car with medication and supplies for their daughter, who has special needs, and Zerkel’s mother, who uses a wheelchair, as well as the couple’s three dogs when the power went out.

Zerkel and her family decided to leave then, joining the tens of thousands of Oregonians who have evacuated their homes since the aggressive, fast-moving wildfires spread throughout the southwest portion of the state.

“I don’t have anything with me. I wasn’t able to pack,” Zerkel told The Washington Post through tears as she spoke by phone from nearby Medford on Wednesday. “Now I understand when people say they left with just the shirt off their back.”

Phoenix Mayor Chris Luz told the Oregonian that the small town and neighboring community of Talent had been “decimated” by the fires.

“Many businesses have been burned down,” Luz said early Wednesday. “Certain neighborhoods, including my own, have been burned down. There are many, many, many homes that are gone.”

Karl Koenig, the president of the Oregon State Fire Fighters Council, said in the past, the fires were fought in the forests.

“The challenge now is we’re no longer in the forest. We’re in cities, in small and large communities,” he told The Post.

Zerkel said several of her friends in Phoenix have lost their homes already, while mobile-home parks in nearby Bear Creek were “gone.”

“There are people going into parking lots and sleeping in their cars with their cats and dogs because there’s no place to go.”

Zerkel considers herself lucky: Her family is staying with her adult daughter in Medford, even as the possibility of their now-combined households evacuating to another place looms. Parts of the 80,000 person community, including Medford, Phoenix and Talent, were under an evacuation order as of late Tuesday; the Jackson County Expo Center was already full by Wednesday morning.

“I don’t know where I would go,” Zerkel said. “Even if we tried to go one direction, the roads are closed. We can’t really go anywhere.”

September 9, 2020 at 5:34 PM EDT
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Officials make clear parts of Paradise, destroyed by 2018 blaze, are under evacuation warning not order

By Emily Wax-Thibodeaux

Officials clarified Wednesday that parts of the town of Paradise, destroyed by California’s deadliest wildfire on record in 2018, were under an evacuation warning, rather than an order.

Officials on social media told residents of the town where 85 people died two years ago to have a “full tank of gas and a go bag ready.”

The evacuation warning was issued at 7:40 a.m.

“I’d either be evacuating out of precaution, or certainly prepared to evacuate,” Jim Broshears of the Paradise Ridge Fire Safe Council said around 10 a.m., according to the Chico Enterprise-Record..

While there are no fires in Paradise at the moment, frantic residents took to Facebook to help one another decipher if their homes were under mandatory evacuation orders.

One man wrote on Facebook that “I have property with livestock in evacuation warning area west of Oro-Bangor Hwy. Power has been out since Monday evening. All roads are blocked even to warning area. Can I get in to water livestock?”

Others wrote that they couldn’t believe fire might threaten their homes again after working for over a year to rebuild over 350 houses.

Responding to confusion about the location of the warnings, the town of Paradise reissued its zone map for residents of Paradise and the upper ridge who might not know their zone.

“It’s the southeastern part of town that has an evacuation warning, not an order,” Paradise public information office Colette Curtis said. “We think winds may be dying down, but in a post-Camp Fire world, we want to be extra vigilant. Everyone is heightened to perceived danger, and there was wrong information about an order spread earlier in the day. It’s because people are traumatized. We have learned that recovery is not just physical, it’s mental. Even the smell of smoke brings back a lot of emotions for us.”

She added that the Camp Fire event was an outlier and that this one is much more standard.

“Even so, we understand that people have endured a lot of trauma and there was so much traffic last time that they might feel they want to leave early,” Curtis said.

September 9, 2020 at 5:06 PM EDT
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Wind-driven wildfires in Oregon could be deadliest such event in state history

By Andrew Freedman

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) said Wednesday that the ongoing wildfire disaster is “unprecedented” and may rank as the deadliest such event in state history. While not announcing any confirmed fatalities, she warned citizens to expect news of deaths and further destruction to come as officials take stock of the damage.

During the past 24 hours, Brown said, “Oregon has experienced unprecedented fire with significant damage and devastating consequences for the entire state.”

“We expect to see a great deal of loss, both of property and of lives,” she said. According to the governor, the towns of Detroit, Blue River, Vida, Phoenix and Talent “are substantially destroyed,” and “hundreds of homes have been lost."

Brown warned that this event may turn out to be the deadliest wildfire disaster in state history, with more than 500 square miles ablaze right now and no significant improvement in weather conditions.

September 9, 2020 at 3:52 PM EDT
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‘It’s apocalyptic:’ Smoke-filled skies over Bay Area stymie sunlight, disrupt daily routines

By Reed Albergotti

It was as if the sun never rose over the San Francisco Bay area Wednesday, and the smoke-induced darkness is throwing people, plants and even power systems off-kilter.

Hudson Fox, a nursery worker at Sloat Garden Center in Mill Valley, Calif., said he thought he accidentally set his alarm for 8 p.m. instead of 8 a.m. Pacific time Wednesday morning. His clock was right. It was the sun that had gone away.

When Fox, 19, arrives at work, the first thing he does is water all the plants. But they were still wet from the previous day’s watering at 1:30 p.m. Fox, who lives near the nursery and had been attending college before the pandemic, has never seen anything like this.

“This is definitely unprecedented,” he said. “It’s apocalyptic.”

The Sloat Garden center is usually busy with landscapers who show up when the doors open at 8 a.m. On Wednesday by 11 a.m., there had been one customer, Fox said.

He said that if the lack of sunlight continues for days, some plants could start to rot if they stay moist and the water isn’t circulated.

“The light usually isn’t the issue — it’s usually keeping the water being regulated and circulated and not to just sit there,” he said.

The lack of sunlight can be seen in the data shared by the California Independent System Operator, which oversees the state’s energy system.

Wednesday at 11:55 a.m., the state’s solar power plants were producing 9,030 megawatts of energy. A week ago at the same time of day, the number was 11,217.

But the difference is likely more dramatic in the Bay Area. Cal ISO doesn’t include solar panels installed in residences. In Corte Madera, Calif., this reporter’s 6-kilowatt home solar array was at zero.

September 9, 2020 at 3:23 PM EDT
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California’s Bear Fire explosively grows, with evacuation warning issued in Paradise, devastated by 2018 blaze

By Jason Samenow

The Bear Fire, located just northeast of Oroville, Calif., and east of Chico, roughly 70 miles north of Sacramento, explosively expanded between Tuesday and Wednesday.

The blaze has prompted an evacuation warning in the eastern part of Paradise in Butte County, the same town devastated by the Camp Fire in 2018, California’s deadliest blaze on record. Evacuations have also been ordered or advised in several adjacent areas in Plumas and Yuba counties, as well as Oroville in Butte County.

Daniel Swain, a climate researcher at the University of California Los Angeles, estimates that the blaze grew 250,000 acres in 24 hours. The Bear Fire is part of the North Complex Fire, which had charred 254,000 acres as of Wednesday morning, according to the Incident Information System.

The Bear Fire has exhibited extreme behavior, developing towering pyrocumulonimbus clouds more than 40,000 feet high and probably fire tornadoes.

“This is an extremely large, dangerous, and fast-moving wind-driven fire,” Swain tweeted.

This area burned by the North Complex Fire likely ranks as the 9th largest in California history. The 2020 wildfire season had already also produced the second-, third-, and fourth-largest blazes on record in the state.

Overall, 2.5 million acres in California have burned in 2020, the most on record by far, and the state’s offshore wind season, typically the most perilous for fires, is just beginning.

September 9, 2020 at 1:54 PM EDT
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It’s dark enough in San Francisco to confuse chickens

By Heather Kelly

Just north of San Francisco in Mill Valley, the dark skies were confusing some usual early risers.

Ken Kirkland at the Woolly Egg Ranch family farm said his 500 chickens have been silent all morning. When he went out to check on them around 10:30 a.m., they just were standing around staring, confused and not eating.

“They are absolutely quiet, they are dead quiet. They think it’s night,” said Kirkland. “Usually they’d be making all kinds of noise, kicking and scratching."

It is also affecting their egg production. On Tuesday, Kirkland noticed only 50 egg drops, 25 percent less than the usual amount.

September 9, 2020 at 1:26 PM EDT
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The view of the West Coast fires from space is shocking

By Andrew Freedman

Satellite imagery of the wildfires shows the extensive effects of this unfolding disaster. Meteorologists and climate scientists have been stunned to see this imagery Wednesday, given that the smoke extends up and down the entire West Coast and out into the Pacific, with tendrils reaching northward toward the Gulf of Alaska.

Some of the largest blazes are burning in Oregon, where fires have burned more than 200,000 acres in just a couple of days. Meanwhile in California, more than 2.5 million acres have burned so far this season — a record, according to Cal Fire.

This satellite animation shows both the smoke and satellite detection of hot spots of the fires themselves:

September 9, 2020 at 12:55 PM EDT
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Skies turn eerily orange over California, Oregon as wildfires blaze throughout Pacific Northwest

By Kim Bellware

Skies up and down the coastal Pacific Northwest are blazing orange as more than 85 wildfires, including the Glendower Fire — also called the Almeda Fire — in Oregon and the Creek Fire in California, burn throughout the region.

There was low visibility across San Francisco early Wednesday where the skies glowed a dull orange; east of Mount Hood in Oregon on Tuesday, the sky appeared even more intensely ablaze during the late afternoon.

Areas hardest hit by the fires are simultaneously experiencing record temperatures, leaving many residents sweltering indoors, unable to open windows because of floating ash and soot in the air outside.

In Eugene, Ore., temperatures were forecast to hit a high of 97 degrees, prompting local officials to advise residents against opening windows and doors despite the heat.

“If temperatures are going to the point where it’s starting to make [residents] uncomfortable, they need to find another place to be,” Leslie Pelinka, a local PeaceHealth pediatrician, told the Register-Guard. “The answer won’t be to open up their windows and their doors, because that will just permanently impact the quality of the air inside their home.”

Lights had to be placed around the practice putting greens in Napa due to the hazy conditions, the PGA tour said early Tuesday.

September 9, 2020 at 12:35 PM EDT
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Behind the blazes: Drought, extreme heat and climate change as an amplifier

By Andrew Freedman

The more than two dozen large wildfires blazing across the West are burning amid unusually dry conditions. They are also coming on the heels of a second historic heat wave in two months, which dramatically dried out vegetation, making it burn more readily.

These two factors alone help explain why the region is burning right now, though two other key factors are also at play.

Increasingly tilting the odds to favor extreme events is climate change, research shows. Then there is the extreme weather event hitting the West, part of a flip-of-a-switch weather-pattern shift that sent temperatures crashing from 92 degrees Monday in Denver to 33 degrees and snowing on Tuesday.

Drought is widespread in Washington, Oregon and California, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor and other products.

Additional metrics that are more specific to wildfires show conditions were off-the-charts favorable for fires this week.

John Abatzoglou, a climate researcher at the University of California at Merced, noted one key fire index that measures the thirst of the atmosphere showed record-setting conditions across a vast expanse of the West this week. As he explained on Twitter, the vapor-pressure deficit “is the difference between how much moisture the air can hold (which increases nonlinearly with temperature) and how much moisture is in the air.”

Extremely low vapor pressure means conditions are hot and the air is extremely dry. This, combined with an early-season down-sloping wind event, helped lead to this wildfire outbreak — once sparks lit new blazes and winds hit preexisting fires.

Studies show that early-season down-sloping events may increase in parts of the West as human-caused global warming continues. In addition, a study published last month shows climate change is increasing the risk of extreme wildfire conditions during the fall season in California. The state’s frequency of fall days with extreme fire-weather conditions has more than doubled since the 1980s, the study found.

September 9, 2020 at 12:10 PM EDT
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Suffocating smoke from wildfires elevates air pollution to hazardous levels

By Jason Samenow

Smoke from the siege of large fires in the western United States is streaking across the Lower 48 but is most pronounced and unhealthful in California and the Pacific Northwest.

The U.S. government’s AirNow pollution data shows large pockets of code red air quality levels in California, Oregon and Washington. Embedded within those pockets are zones of code purple and even maroon in Oregon, signifying “very unhealthy” and “hazardous” air quality.

The AirNow showed Oregon’s worst air quality just south of Eugene.

“Unfortunately, air quality is still in terrible shape for most cities across the Valley & OR coast,” tweeted Jeff Forgeron, a meteorologist for the Fox television affiliate in Portland.

According to waqi.info, an online database of air quality levels, the pollution in parts of western Oregon was about the worst in the world, trailing only isolated locations in China and India.

Ryan Stauffer, an air quality expert at NASA, said in an interview that the code red conditions in Salem, Ore., have occurred only three other times on record. He called the nearby code maroon levels “exceptionally high” and “rare territory.”

The duration of the compromised air quality has also been notable, Stauffer said, particularly in California.

“This is a multiday event,” he said. “The fact that the smoke has remained draped over California for four days, it’s brutal.”

In California, the worst air quality was just south of Fresno. In San Francisco, the smoke obscured the sun, turning the sky a dark, smoky red hue.

At code purple and maroon levels, adverse health effects from the pollution impact the entire population but are especially dangerous for those with respiratory conditions. Under such conditions, residents are advised to limit time outside and avoid strenuous outdoor activities.