'We could hear the trees exploding': At least 7 dead as swath of wildfires rage across California, Oregon, Washington, other Western states
- In Oregon, almost 100,000 homes and businesses were without power as crews battled large fires in Clackamas County, south of Portland.
- Washington state was seeing 'unprecedented' fires, with 500 square miles burning on Monday alone.
- In Northern California, helicopters have rescued hundreds of people stranded in the Sierra National Forest, where the Creek Fire was burning.
SHAVER LAKE, Calif. — Heavy winds sweeping across the West fueled fast-growing wildfires Wednesday and forced mass evacuations as firefighters battled gamely to protect lives, homes and businesses.
More than 90 major fires that have burned more than 5,300 square miles – almost the size of Connecticut – are raging in 13 Western states, according to a count by the National Fire Information Center. At least seven people are confirmed to have died, including three in Butte County, California, according to Sheriff Kory Honea. Another 12 people are missing in Butte County, the sheriff said.
The fires were also blamed for three deaths in Oregon, and one in Washington state.
Thick smoke completely blocked sunlight in some large areas, and distant flames turned the sky orange in others.
The San Francisco Bay Area woke up to an apocalyptic, orange-tinged sky that gave the impression the morning had not arrived, as street lights stayed on and both drivers and folks in their homes had to turn their lights on. By 3:30 p.m. Pacific Time, the dark cover still enveloped the area.
Several weeks of fire season remain across a region plagued by high heat and parched terrain. California has already set a record with nearly 2.3 million acres burned this year.
Holly Brown, among the tens of thousands of Californians who have been displaced, found refuge outside the Clovis Hills Community Church along with her mother, brother and four dogs after being forced from the family farm in the Tollhouse area by the Creek Fire, about 70 miles northeast of Fresno.
“Our entire community is gone,'' Brown said. "Everyone is evacuated. We could hear the trees exploding as this red glow came up over the hillside."
Northern and Central California were under siege as Diablo winds fanned the flames of roaring, historic fires burning virtually uncontrolled. The Creek Fire in the Sierra National Forest destroyed more than 350 structures and forced evacuation of over 30,000 people in Fresno and Madera counties, authorities said.
That includes scores of people evacuated by California National Guard and Navy pilots who completed eight trips to the wilderness, bringing dozens of people back each time, Fresno County Lt. Brandon Purcell said.
In Shaver Lake, the destruction included Cressman’s General Store, an iconic landmark dating back to 1904. Dozens of homes burned, the flames charring them down to foundations and chimneys and melting away tires and paint from vehicles parked alongside. But the devastation is not total: The fire spared the Pine Ridge Elementary School, although it burned a school bus parked nearby.
Weather conditions favorable for fire spread are expected to last until Thursday, when calmer winds may bring firefighters some relief.
"We understand what you're going through," Incident Commander Marty Adell told evacuees. "A lot of us come from fire-prone areas. We've been in this business for a long time. ... We are going to try everything in our power to get you back into the areas you call home."
In the Los Padres National Forest on the state’s central coast, 14 firefighters suffered burns and smoke inhalation after deploying emergency shelters as flames from the Dolan Fire destroyed a fire station, Incident Commander Rob Allen said.
Three were flown to a hospital in Fresno. Spokesman Chris Barth said they were stabilized, with one in critical and the other two in fair condition.
Fires were also blazing in Southern California, and strong winds were driving wildfires in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
California ablaze: Striking satellite imagery shows how the fires are unfolding
In Oregon, a series of fires killed three people and forced residents to flee flames, smoke and destruction. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said hundreds of residences have been destroyed.
"This could be the greatest loss of human life and property due to wildfire in our state’s history,” Brown said.
In Marion County, a Detroit evacuee wondered what she and neighbors had left behind as she raced from the inferno.
"Fire on both sides, winds blowing, ash flying. It was like driving through hell," Jody Evans told NewsChannel 21. "Did you lose everything, or is the only thing you saved yourself?"
Helicopters have rescued hundreds of people stranded in the burning Sierra National Forest, where the Creek Fire that already destroyed 365 buildings threatened 5,000 more, fire officials said.
Isaac Rodriguez of San Diego and a group of friends were backpacking above Shaver Lake and planned to camp. When things got hot, Rodriguez took refuge at Lake Edison's Vermilion Valley Resort and waited for help.
"The day we started backpacking, we didn't know there was a fire," Rodriguez said. "They took care of us pretty well there. ... We knew we couldn't get out."
Authorities say it will likely be at least a week, and possibly as long as a month, before the Creek Fire is controlled enough to permit residents to return.
Holly Brown, her mother and brother hope they don't have to wait that long. They are sleeping outside the Clovis Hills Community Church on blankets near their battered Toyota Tacoma pickups so they can stay close to their dogs. Brown pondered the fate of the family farm in the Tollhouse area burned by the Creek Fire.
"I’m anxious to go home. I know it would be scary to be up there but I want to be there," said Brown, 45, who works at a nearby gas station. "We were really hesitant to go to a shelter. We’re private. It’s how we do it."
The church on Wednesday distributed free food and other supplies to evacuees, many of whom were unwilling to go into a nearby Red Cross shelter because their animals were unwelcome there.
Brown's family fled their farm Sunday at 1 a.m, bundling heirloom quilts and their dogs into the trucks. They had to leave behind an older, blind horse and a cat. The horse will find leftover containers of dog food to eat if all the hay has burned, Brown said, and the cat will survive as it always has. The family has lived on the farm for 30 years, using propane, wood and solar electricity to stay off the grid.
In Southern California, fires burned in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties, and the forecast called for the arrival of the region’s notorious Santa Anas. The hot, dry winds could reach 50 mph at times, forecasters said.
The El Dorado Fire in San Bernardino County, sparked last week during a baby gender-reveal event, had spread across 18 square miles and was 19% contained. Almost 1,000 firefighters aided by six helicopters were battling the blaze.
“The combination of gusty winds, very dry air, and dry vegetation will create critical fire danger,” the National Weather Service warned.
In Oregon, wildfires powered by 50-mph wind gusts killed two people, destroyed hundreds of homes, forced harried evacuations and left almost 100,000 homes and businesses without power Wednesday. The state Office of Emergency Management said at least 35 fires were burning across Oregon.
Gov. Kate Brown warned of overwhelming devastation from blazes burning a large swath of Oregon and Washington state that rarely experiences such intense fire activity because of the Pacific Northwest’s cool and wet climate.
KOIN-TV reported a 12-year-old boy and his grandmother died in the fire near Lyons, 24 miles southeast of the capital city of Salem, and the child's mother was hospitalized in critical condition.
Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler confirmed another death at the origin point of a wildfire that started near Ashland, The Mail Tribune newspaper in Medford reported on Wednesday night.
The precise extent of damage was unclear because so many of the fire zones were too dangerous to survey, said Oregon Deputy State Fire Marshal Mariana Ruiz-Temple.
Vietnam veteran Lloyd Dean Holland initially resisted police advice to leave because the fire seemed distant from his home in Estacada, 23 miles southeast of Portland. Around 10 p.m., he said his landlord came pounding on the door screaming at him to go.
“I’ve been through hell and high water but nothing like this,'' Holland said. "I’ve been shot down and shot at, but this – last night, I’m still not over it.”
In Gates, a Marion County hamlet of about 500 people 35 miles east of Salem, acting Mayor John McCormick said it was difficult to track which homes were spared by the flames and which ones were destroyed.
“We were happy and at home and everything was great. Within a few hours, everything changed for everybody," McCormick said. "We weren’t even in evacuation stage until suddenly the fire was there. No step 1, 2, 3 and get out. It was ‘Get out!’ There was no warning whatsoever.”
Fires continued to roar across parts of Washington state, claiming the life of a 1-year-old boy. Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley said the boy's family was apparently overrun by flames while trying to flee a wildfire in the northeastern part of the state. The parents were found Wednesday in the area of the Cold Springs Fire and transported to a Seattle hospital with third-degree burns, Hawley said.
Hundreds of residents have been ordered to evacuate this week. More than 500 square miles burned Monday alone, Gov. Jay Inslee said. That’s more in a single day than 12 of the last 18 entire fire seasons, he said.
“It’s an unprecedented and heartbreaking event,'' Inslee said. "We’re living in a new world. This is not the old Washington."
Inslee said at least nine major fires were burning across the state. He blamed heat, high winds, low humidity – and climate change – for the explosive growth of fires.
"A fire that you might’ve seen that was going to be OK over time isn’t OK anymore because the conditions are so dry, they’re so hot, they’re so windy," Inslee said. "The climate has changed.”
The Bridger Foothills Fire near Bozeman, Montana, isn't large in comparison to some of the blazes exploding across the West, but it has been costly. Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said 28 residences and an unknown number of other buildings have been damaged or destroyed by fire stretching over more than 7,000 acres – about 11 square miles.
“There would have been a heck of a lot more (homes burned) than that if it weren’t for our firefighters,” Gootkin told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
Precipitation over the fire area was helping, but the sheriff's office warned on its Facebook page that "heavy fuels" remain dry inside and continue to burn. A warming, drying trend was expected through week's end, adding to the fire concerns.
In Idaho, the Idaho State Fire Marshal’s Office said on Facebook that 13 homes were destroyed along with 31 other structures and 26 vehicles near the north-central Idaho town of Orofino. The culprit was a fast-moving complex of smaller wildfires covering more than 1,600 acres.
The County Commissioners Office said a landslide along a local highway took out power lines, which may have sparked the fire. No official cause had been determined, however. No injuries or fatalities had been reported.
Bacon reported from Arlington, Virginia; Jorge L. Ortiz from San Francisco. Contributing: Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY; Sheyanne N. Romero and Joshua Yeager, Visalia Times-Delta; Bill Poehler and Capi Lynn, Salem Statesman Journal; The Associated Press