California and Oregon set records for burned areas, at least 15 people have died and more than half a million have evacuation orders
Like anyone who lives in a rural village in the mountains near Fresno, California, Patricia Zea has seen many fires. Last weekend she could see from her pool the glow of the Creek Fire, a gigantic 71,000-hectare fire that still burns uncontrollably, a week after it started, in the forests of the mountains of northeastern California. Last Saturday, however, she realized that this was different. “They said that the fire had jumped the San Joaquin River. That had never happened, ”said Zea, 55, Thursday night at a Red Cross shelter on the outskirts of Fresno. “Three years ago there was a very big one, but this was 100 times worse.” This Monday, a firefighter helicopter ordered them from the air to evacuate their home.
Like Patricia Zea, all of California, a state the size of Spain more than used to the threat of fire, has realized in the last week that this time is different. The entire West Coast of the United States, actually. In Oregon, where 360,000 hectares have already been burned, more than half a million people (10% of the population), woke up on Friday under evacuation orders. In all, more than a hundred simultaneous large fires in three states threaten populations, including the city of Portland and parts of Los Angeles and San Francisco. The resources that are normally provided by one State to another are at the limit.
At least 15 people have died in these fires unprecedented in number and extent. The most tragic version was on Friday, perhaps momentarily, in Ashland, in southern Oregon. A sudden fire, which is not one of the largest, has destroyed five entire villages there, some 600 houses. The governor of the State and the sheriff local warned that the search for victims has just begun and fear a high number of deaths. Until Friday, only two deaths directly related to this fire have been confirmed. In addition, the police have opened an investigation on suspicion that it could have been intentional.
In Portland (population 650,000), the mayor declared a state of emergency on Thursday night to mobilize the city in case evacuations were necessary due to a fire located 50 kilometers away. In total, more than 364,000 hectares have already burned in Oregon, according to figures from Gov. Kate Brown. The annual average for the last decade is 202,000 hectares. About 3,000 firefighters fight a dozen major fires across the state, and it would take twice that, according to Brown. States as far away as Texas are sending emergency teams to the West Coast.
In California 28 fires were burning at once on Friday and some 68,000 people have been displaced from their homes. To get an idea of the dry and windy conditions, 24 more emerged the day before, although they were quickly shut down. One of the largest, burning northeast Sacramento for 23 days, stretches across the wreckage of the deadliest fire in California history, which killed 85 people in Paradise in 2018 since Thursday. The flames are raging again the place and it is once again the center of the tragedy, with 10 confirmed fatalities. Authorities are looking for at least 16 more missing people. In two days the fire has burned 26,000 hectares and is out of control. 20,000 people have had to leave their homes again.
The biggest effort was Thursday around Fresno, where the so-called Creek Fire is growing at full speed and has already burned 71,000 hectares of forest. More than 1,200 people like Patricia Zea are scattered around hotels in Fresno, since the protocols for the pandemic prevent setting up shelters in pavilions. The blaze “is huge,” Capt. Chris Vestal, a Creek Fire command post spokesman, said Thursday as he pointed to the map of the fire. Firefighters have managed to control 6% of the perimeter, but these are hardly “isolated points,” explained Vestal. The smoke is so intense that it is making it difficult to use aerial means.
Last Tuesday, California rose with the figure that the fires have already burned more than 800,000 hectares so far this year, a historical record. Only two days later, the figure had to be updated: there are already 1.2 million hectares, something like the entire province of Salamanca, or 15 times the city of New York. The figure is 26 times higher than what was burned last year, when a relatively benign fire season, compared to the horrors of the previous two years, created a false sense that these types of disasters could not get worse. On paper, the fire season is just beginning. The worst month is usually October.
As thousands of people in the path of the flames find themselves safe, the extent and duration of the fires is also causing concern to the entire population. Since Wednesday, large cities like Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles have been covered in dense smoke dangerous to health. The smoke covers 1.5 million square kilometers, according to an Efe calculation from satellite images. Downtown Los Angeles on Thursday recorded the worst air quality in 30 years, when public health alerts were common to avoid going outside for the famous smog from the city. That day the sun did not rise at any point on the highway between Los Angeles and Fresno (350 kilometers). The sky, according to the weather information, was clear.