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Western wildfires break records as devastating toll on lives and homes begins to emerge

At least seven people, including a 1-year-old boy, have died in California, Oregon and Washington state

Wildfire season is a natural part of many ecosystems, but climate change has these fires burning hotter and longer throughout the year. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)
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Wildfires continued to burn out of control up and down the length of the West Coast on Thursday, with smoke blotting out the sun in parts of Oregon and California. In Oregon, officials were expanding evacuation zones in Clackamas County, as two wildfires were expected to merge and have the potential to advance toward some of Portland’s southeastern suburbs.

The community of Mollala was ordered to evacuate, while more heavily populated areas were placed in Level 1, or “Be Ready,” evacuation zones. On Thursday afternoon local time, firefighters were repositioning to defend communities in case the fires grow and make a run down into lower elevations.

Weather was expected to improve, with slackening winds compared with the howling gales that led to so many rapidly spreading blazes at once. However, according to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) and fire officials, active fire spread continues there as shifting winds allow some blazes to spread.

A heat wave and dry winds fuel fires in the West

At least seven people, including a 1-year-old boy, have died in California, Oregon and Washington state amid the dozens of wildfires burning throughout the varied landscapes of the American West, officials announced Wednesday.

Brown said more than 900,000 acres have burned in 72 hours across her state, far above the typical annual average of 500,000 acres in the state. “We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across the state,” Brown said at a news conference Thursday. Some 30,000 to 40,000 residents have evacuated due to the fires, she said.

Wildfires are starting and spreading throughout California, Oregon and Washington state. (Video: The Washington Post)

The fires have stretched state and local firefighters’ resources to the limit in Oregon, and Brown has requested a battalion of firefighters from the Defense Department as well as firefighters from other states to help gain control of the blazes.

Brown said these fires are unprecedented, but they carry a clear message on climate change.

“It is the bellwether of the future. We are feeling the acute impacts of climate change. We are seeing its acute impacts in Oregon, on the West Coast and frankly in the entire world,” Brown said.

Officials in northern Washington state announced that a 1-year-old boy died and his parents were severely burned in the Cold Springs Fire. Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley said in a news conference that his office received a call Tuesday afternoon about Jacob and Jamie Hyland, a young couple from Renton, Wash., who were reported missing while visiting Okanogan with their son.

Hawley said the family attempted to escape the fire as it approached the property where they were staying. Rescuers first found their truck, which was burned and wrecked, and then located the family on the bank of the Columbia River on Wednesday morning.

The parents had third-degree burns and were flown to a Seattle hospital for treatment.

The smoke from the siege of blazes was fouling air quality in California, Oregon and Washington. The U.S. government’s Air Quality Index showed large areas of code-red or “unhealthy” air quality in all three states. In California and Oregon, pockets of code purple and amber, signifying very unhealthy and hazardous pollution levels, were present. Pollution levels near Salem, Ore., were the highest on the planet, based on values reported to the international database at the website

Oregon wildfires race through small towns, scorching hundreds of buildings

Oregon fires

In southwestern Oregon, wildfires continued to burn across thousands of acres, including in timber-dominated ecosystems in a part of the typically rainy state where such fires are relatively rare. With some blazes, such as the nearly 160,000-acre Santiam Fire, emerging evidence suggests that downed power lines from strong winds played a role in helping flames spread.

Four wildfires were threatening communities in Clackamas County, prompting expanding evacuations, including of some Portland suburbs.

The remains of one person were found in Ashland, and the Glendower Fire that affected Medford, Talent and Phoenix has prompted a criminal investigation to determine whether it was deliberately sparked.

In Mehama, Ore., a 12-year-old boy and his grandmother were killed trying to flee the Santiam Fire on Wednesday, which stood at 159,000 acres and zero percent containment as of Thursday morning.

Family members confirmed to KPTV that 12-year-old Wyatt Tofte and his grandmother, Peggy Mosso, died inside their car next to the family’s home. Wyatt’s mother suffered severe burns and remained in critical condition, family members told KGW.

The National Weather Service forecast office in Medford predicted shifting winds and continued hot and dry conditions Thursday, but the strong winds that have characterized the past few days of historic fire spread were finally dying down. There is even some rain in the forecast for early next week.

“We’ll see winds shift from east to southeast or northwest to west to northwest in the afternoon,” the NWS stated in a technical discussion. “It will remain dry today with plenty of smoke covering most of the forecast area.”

The forecast high for Medford was 100 degrees, but in a sign of how dense the smoke is, the NWS said that temperature might not be reached, because the smoke is absorbing and scattering much of the incoming solar radiation.

California fires

In California, at least three people have died and 12 remained missing in the Bear Fire, now called the North Complex West Zone, which advanced about 25 miles in 24 hours between Tuesday and Wednesday, threatening to burn into Oroville. That fire has damaged or destroyed about 2,000 structures, according to Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency.

The fire is part of the larger North Complex Fire, which has rapidly become the state’s 10th-largest blaze on record, burning about 247,358 acres through Thursday morning, with 23 percent containment. The fire burned through timber, much of it dead trees that were weakened or killed off by the drought that affected the state from 2011 to 2017. In a single day, it consumed over 200,000 acres.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said in a news conference Wednesday that two of the three dead were found in the same location. The other victim was discovered near Berry Creek by a California Highway Patrol officer who suspected they fled from their car in an unsuccessful attempt to escape the fire, the San Jose Mercury News reported. The sheriff’s office was working to identify the victims and notify their families, Honea said.

Smoke was so thick that it turned the sky orange across the San Francisco Bay area Wednesday, with birds failing to sense daybreak.

We’re in uncharted territory

As of Thursday, California had seen more than 3.1 million acres burned this year, the largest amount of land on record — with the heart of the Southern California fire season still to come.

Cal Fire released a slew of statistics Thursday showing just how severe the fires have been. An astonishing 3.1 million acres have burned this year, which is up from a total of 2.5 million acres as of Wednesday.

  • There have been 12 wildfire-related fatalities this year. More than 3,900 structures have been destroyed.
  • Six of the 20 largest wildfires in California history have occurred in 2020.
  • These fires include the August Complex (No. 1), SCU Lightning Complex (No. 3), LNU Lightning Complex (No. 4), North Complex (No. 10) and Creek Fire (No. 17).
  • In addition, the LNU complex and the August Complex both are among the 10 most destructive fires in state history.

The simultaneous outbreak of fires across such a large expanse, plus the staggering speeds with which these fires advanced, have led wildfire experts to call this an unprecedented event in modern times. The only comparable event mentioned is the Big Blowup of 1910, when a massive blaze swept across parts of Montana and Idaho, according to Nick Nauslar, a predictive-services meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

“Multiple fires made 20-plus mile runs in 24 hours over the last few days in California, Oregon and Washington,” Nauslar 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,” he said. “The sheer amount of fire on the landscape is surreal, and no one I have talked to can remember anything like it.”

In addition to the 3.1 million acres burned in California, 954,000 acres have been lost in Oregon and 500,000 in Washington state.

The wildfires come after a record-shattering heat wave that sent temperatures across the region soaring through the triple digits, and amid human-caused climate change that is heightening fire risks in the West.

These blazes have been driven by strong, dry, offshore winds that contributed to extreme fire behavior, producing mushroom-cloud-like plumes of smoke that reach 40,000 feet in height and fire tornadoes that make it impossible for firefighters to contain an advancing blaze.

After a mid-August heat wave and wildfire outbreak in California, the heat wave that struck the region in the past week dried vegetation out to a record extent, priming it for burning.

John Abatzoglou, a climate researcher at the University of California at Merced, noted that 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.

A study published in August 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.

The unprecedented fires have forced authorities to take previously unheard-of actions.

Following the rescue of hundreds of stranded hikers, campers and others from the advancing Creek Fire earlier in the week, 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 closures cover more than 20 million acres of forest, an area about 26 times the size of Rhode Island.

Jason Samenow and Matthew Cappucci contributed to this report.