John Bacon and Joshua Yeager
Published 11:09 AM EDT Sep 8, 2020
FRESNO, Calif. – Helicopter rescues were underway near Fresno and California’s largest utility was cutting off power to more than 170,000 customers Tuesday as intense heat, dry conditions and high winds fueled historic wildfires across the Pacific Northwest.
Almost 1,000 fires have raged in the state since Aug. 15, many sparked by lightning strikes. California already has set a grim record with more than 2 million acres burned this year – with several weeks remaining in the heart of fire season.
Hurricane-force winds and high temperatures energized wildfires across Oregon and Washington state as well. Almost 250,000 homes and businesses in the two states were without power, and the small town of Malden, in Washington’s Whitman County, was devastated by flames.
“The scale of this disaster really can’t be expressed in words,” Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers said in a statement. “The fire will be extinguished but a community has been changed for a lifetime.”
Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz tweeted that “we’re still seeing new fire starts in every corner of the state.”
California ablaze: Striking satellite imagery shows how the fires are unfolding
In Central California, the fast-growing Creek Fire had raced through about 212 square miles and remained 0% contained. Fire officials haven’t even begun to assess the structures lost to the wildfire but know it’s extensive, they said.
“This fire has already hit us hard,” said Dean Gould, Sierra National Forest supervisor. “I know on the forest staff, personally, there’s been loss of homes.”
More than 60 hikers and campers were initially unable to evacuate Lake Edison and China Peak areas due to the dense smoke cover. Fresno County Lt. Brandon Purcell said the trapped people were safe but “can’t get out because of roadblocks.”
Later, KMPH-TV reported that military helicopters had evacuated more than 50 people. The effort was continuing, but National Guard officials told the TV station that at least five people refused to board helicopters.
Southern California also battling fires, one sparked by gender reveal event
In Southern California, crews scrambled to douse several fires that roared to life in searing temperatures, including one that closed mountain roads in Angeles National Forest and forced the evacuation of the historic Mount Wilson Observatory. The Los Angeles County Fire Department told residents of Duarte, Bradbury and Monrovia near the forest to get ready for a possible evacuation.
In San Bernardino County, Cal Fire said the El Dorado Fire that started Saturday morning was caused by a smoke-generating pyrotechnic device used by a couple to reveal their baby’s gender. Authorities said the couple was cooperating with investigators and that no determination on criminal charges had been made.
During a virtual community meeting Monday night, fire and emergency managers said the fire had grown to about 15 square miles and was just 7% contained.
In eastern San Diego County, a fire destroyed at least 10 structures after burning 16 square miles and prompting evacuations near the remote community of Alpine in the Cleveland National Forest.
More: California’s oldest state park, home to iconic redwoods, expects to close for year due to fires
Blackouts planed for parts of at least 22 California counties
Pacific Gas and Electric, which serves Central and Northern California, said it was working to limit the number of customers facing blackouts. Parts of 22 counties and seven tribal communities were facing some “de-energization,” the utility said.
Sparks from utility lines have been blamed for massive fires causing numerous deaths and billions of dollars in lost homes and businesses. The company also is criticized for sometimes lengthy power cutoffs aimed at curbing the risk of additional fires.
The National Weather Service has placed 1.5 million customers in its service territory under Red Flag Warning conditions for wildfires, the utility said.
“We have been able to limit public safety de-energization to less than 12% of those customers,” the utility said in a statement.
The power news was a bit better to the south. Southern California Edison tweeted that “Third straight day of #energyconservation paid off. No ISO-ordered power outages during the #LaborDay2020 #heatwave. We truly appreciate your thoughtful use of energy.”
Washington town of Malden ravaged by flames
Malden, a town of about 200 people 30 miles south of Spokane, was torn apart by multiple blazes driven by 45-mph winds. Sheriff Myers said the largest began Monday afternoon and raced through the tiny downtown. The fire station, post office, city hall/library complex and other prominent buildings “completely burned to the ground,” he said. He estimated that 80% of the homes and structures in Malden were destroyed.
Authorities were working on a plan to take inventory of the damage and to account for residents who were in their homes or in the communities when the firestorms hit.
“I just hope we don’t find the fire took more than homes and buildings,” Myers said. “I pray everyone got out in time.”
Evacuation orders issued in Oregon
In Oregon, Eric Johnson, deputy fire staff for Northwest Oregon Fire Management, warned that the wildfire weather forecast is “extremely rare and occurs only a few times a century.” Almost 140,000 homes and businesses were without power.
Evacuations were ordered for several communities in Marion County, home to the state capital of Salem. The Sheriff’s Office issued a Level 3 – “Go” – notice to residents in the communities of Gates, Mill City, Detroit, Idanha, Mehama and the North Fork corridor. Residents were urged to leave the area immediately.
“The extreme fire activity in the area poses an imminent danger to anyone who chooses to remain in the evacuated area,” Sheriff Joe Kast said in a statement. “Our deputies are committed to helping keep our community safe. However, conditions have become too dangerous for them to continue with evacuation efforts at this time.”
Mill City resident Mike Ferris said he was able to evacuate his home around 2 a.m.
“As soon as we got to the edge of town we could see houses and trees burning on both sides of the road,” Ferris said.
In Lane County, which includes the city of Eugene, residents of the Holiday Farm RV Park in Blue River were ordered out.
“Danger to your area is current or imminent, and you should evacuate immediately,” a news release from Lane County said. “If you choose to ignore this advisement, you must understand that emergency services may not be available to assist you further. DO NOT delay leaving to gather any belongings or make efforts to protect your home.”
Bacon reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: Sheyanne N Romero and David Rodriguez, Visalia Times-Delta; Zach Urness and David Davis, Salem Statesman Journal; The Associated Press