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West Coast fires: Residents told to be ready to evacuate as California wildfires rage

Posted at 2:27 PM, Sep 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-09 16:27:10-04

Thousands more people in Northern California should be prepared to evacuate if called upon -- including Oroville and part of the town of Paradise -- because one of the state's many major wildfires was burning in their direction, authorities warned Wednesday.

Oroville is a city of 20,000 people some 65 miles north of Sacramento. Just north of Oroville is Paradise, one of the communities devastated by 2018's Camp Fire.

The Butte County Sheriff's Office issued evacuation warnings -- meaning people should be prepared to leave if ordered -- for Oroville and one southeastern portion of Paradise, saying they could come under threat by the North Complex Fire.


That fire is a group of merged blazes that have burned more than 150,000 acres in the Plumas National Forest since a lightning storm sparked them August 17.

Smaller communities near the fire were under mandatory evacuation areas Wednesday, the sheriff's office said.

In California, about two dozen major wildfires are now raging in a year that already has seen 2.2 million acres charred. That's a record for the Golden State for one year, and four months remain in the fire season, Cal Fire said.

"(This is) one of the most challenging -- perhaps the most challenging -- wildfire season California has ever seen," state National Guard Col. Jesse Miller said Wednesday, citing this year's combination of high temperatures, dynamic winds, low humidity and a drought in northern areas.

Hot, dry and windy conditions are fueling numerous wildfires across the US West -- including Oregon and Washington -- and weather conditions may make things worse.

As of Wednesday morning, areas home to more than 30 million people in five Western states -- Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and Arizona -- were under red flag warnings. These warnings caution that conditions likely to start or spread fires -- strong winds and dry conditions -- were imminent or happening.

Size of Central Park burned every half hour

California has "fires burning in the north part of the state all the way down to the Mexican border, about 800 miles between the furthest distant fires, so we're stretched across the landscape," Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter told CNN.

The Creek Fire, racing through the mountains of Madera and Fresno counties in the state's central section, has destroyed at least 360 structures since the flames erupted Friday evening. The fire has burned more than 163,000 acres and has no containment. Since it began, the fire has burned an area roughly the size of Central Park every 30 minutes over the past several days.

"We have 150 million trees that died in the southern Sierra several years ago, and those are fueling the Creek Fire, which is the biggest and most concerning fire to us right now," Porter said late Tuesday.

About 385 people and 27 animals were airlifted by helicopter over the past several days after getting trapped by the fire in the Sierra National Forest, California National Guard Col. David Hall told CNN. At least 30,000 people have been evacuated, Fresno County sheriff's Lt. Brandon Pursell said late Tuesday.

In the Los Angeles area, Santa Ana winds -- hot, dry air descending from the inland mountain regions -- threaten Wednesday to help start or expand fires, including the Bobcat Fire burning in the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of the city.

The Bobcat Fire has burned more than 11,400 acres, and forced evacuation orders for areas including parts of Pasadena, CNN affiliate KTLA reported.

In Southern California's San Bernardino County, the El Dorado Fire has burned 11,479 acres and is 20% contained, fire officials said.

The fire, sparked during a gender reveal party, was caused by a "smoke-generating pyrotechnic device" used at the party on Saturday morning in El Dorado Ranch Park in Yucaipa, about 70 miles east of Los Angeles, Cal Fire investigators determined.

California hasn't yet reached what is typically the heart of its fire season, when the Santa Ana winds really begin to add fuel to an already dangerous recipe for fire.

The frequency of fall days with extreme fire weather conditions in California has more than doubled since the 1980s, driven mainly by climate change, a recent study found.

'Urgent and scary to get out'

In Oregon, at least 14 large fires burned Wednesday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The governor says some situations have been dire enough to make even firefighters retreat.

Thousands evacuated their homes to escape the flames that have already scorched more than 230,000 acres, Gov. Kate Brown said Tuesday evening.

Fires were threatening homes in Clackamas County south of Portland and the Medford and Phoenix areas in Jackson County.

"In some areas, the situation is so difficult and dangerous that even firefighters are being evacuated," the governor told reporters.

Oregon has experienced "historic wildfires" almost every year in Brown's time in office, but this year's fires are "unprecedented," she said.

"This is definitely a once-in-a-generation event," Brown said.

Clackamas County, in northwestern Oregon, declared a state of emergency as a response to several wildfires that prompted evacuations. Across the county, more than a dozen Level 3 -- "Go! Evacuate now!" -- evacuations were in place, with several other areas ordered to be ready for evacuations, officials said.

In neighboring Marion County -- home to the state's capital city -- another state of emergency was declared Tuesday, with residents across the region forced out of their homes by fires.

One family told CNN affiliate KPTV they had a brief notice to leave their home as nearby flames moved in.

"We drove under a tree that had fallen over and there was burning limbs and it was like urgent and scary to get out," Sabrina Kent told the news station.

The family is staying in an RV near a local grocery store, according to the affiliate, as they map out their next steps.

"This is the most messed up year, can we just fast forward?" Kent told KPTV.

Oregon's corrections department announced Tuesday they evacuated three Salem prisons following threats from the Beachie Creek and Lionshead wildfires.

A charred Washington state town

In Washington state, more acres were burned Monday than were charred in the past 12 fire seasons, Gov. Jay Inslee said, and dry conditions continue to fuel the blazes. In one eastern Washington town, flames destroyed more than 80% of homes and public infrastructure.

"I just can't reiterate," Inslee said, "we think almost all of these fires were human-caused, in some dimension. If you can avoid being outside for anything that would even cause a spark, I hope people can avoid those conditions."

In the town of Malden, about 80% of the town's homes and public infrastructure were destroyed, including the fire station, post office, city hall and library, authorities said.

"The scale of this disaster really can't be expressed in words," Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers said.

Fires have already burned through more than 330,000 acres in the state, according to the governor.

Further west, in Graham, a fire that ripped through the area left what residents described as a "war zone," according to CNN affiliate KOMO. Some lost everything.

At least six houses and three shops were destroyed, according to the news station, along with sheds, equipment and vehicles. The fire department issued evacuation orders for about 100 residents, the station reported.

"It's devastating for the people who live here for sure, and to me, and my heart. This fire came (through) hot and fast," Graham Fire & Rescue's Assistant Fire Chief Steve Richards told the affiliate. "It was a firestorm it pushed right through."

For the country as a whole, the number of fires recorded and the acreage burned in 2020 are below the 10-year average for the same period, according to National Interagency Fire Center. A total of 41,147 fires have been reported so far this year, while the average number of fires through September 9 over the last 10 years is 43,915, the NIFC says.

The total acreage burned since the beginning of 2020 is nearly 4.7 million, compared with the 10-year average of 5,752,922 acres at this point of the year, the NIFC said.

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