Weary fire crews try to beat back raging flames.
Exhausted fire crews worked on Sunday to beat back raging wildfires that have scorched millions of acres across three Western states and displaced thousands of people as communities have been swallowed by flames.
At least 25 people have died in the fires, and in Oregon, which has taken the biggest blow in the last few days, officials have warned that the toll could climb. Andrew Phelps, the director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, said state officials were bracing for the possibility of a “mass fatality incident.”
The fires have engulfed the region in anguish and fear, as fairgrounds have morphed into refuges for the many who have been forced from their homes and air thickened by smoke and ash has cast a haze darkening the skies over a broad swath of the West Coast.
“It is apocalyptic,” Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, said Sunday on the ABC program “This Week.” “I drove 600 miles up and down the state, and I never escaped the smoke. We have thousands of people who have lost their homes. I could have never envisioned this.”
The fires in Oregon have already consumed more than one million acres and forced tens of thousands of people out of their homes. That is in addition to the record-setting 3.1 million acres burned in California and more than 600,000 acres burned in Washington State.
The National Weather Service said on Sunday that the air quality, which rated as the worst in the world, could begin to improve for some cities beginning Monday.
Calmer winds blowing inland from the Pacific Ocean, and cooler, moister conditions on Saturday had helped crews make some progress on the fires, which Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon called a “once-in-a-generation event.”
Ms. Brown said it was clear that the intensity of the wildfires was fueled by a “perfect fire storm” of conditions, including rapid wind speeds, high temperatures and decades of drought. In most years over the past decade, roughly 500,000 acres burned, yet this week alone, she said, more than one million acres had burned in the state.
“This is a wake-up call for all of us,” she said.
But Ms. Brown, appearing on the CBS program “Face the Nation,” said that improving weather conditions on Sunday might give firefighters a foothold as they push to contain the fires. “It gives our hardworking firefighters an opportunity to go out and be proactive and build containment lines,” she said.
Even as Ms. Brown gave her assessment, the National Weather Service issued a “red flag warning” because of the prospect of windy and dry weather in southern Oregon and nearby counties in California. Some areas could see gusts as high as 40 miles an hour, and forecasters said the winds would “likely contribute to a significant spread of new and existing fires.”
“We could be looking at a challenging Sunday,” Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said.
Sunday’s warnings include Jackson County in Oregon, where the Almeda fire swept through the communities of Talent and Phoenix, scorching hundreds of homes and leaving at least five people dead.
“The winds could be strong enough where it could allow fires to become more active,” said Mike Petrucelli, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Medford, Ore. “The one thing you don’t want to make the fire active is wind, and low humidity.”
No significant precipitation in the forecast for Oregon or much of Washington in the next few days, adding to the plight of firefighters.
The authorities in Jackson County also dispatched investigators in an effort to track down the many people who had been reported missing as the fires intensified. At one point, some 50 people had been unaccounted for there, but by Sunday, all but one person had been accounted for, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office said.
On Saturday, the Oregon State Police announced that the state fire marshal, James Walker, had resigned after being placed on administrative leave earlier in the day. The statement did not say why Mr. Walker had resigned. He was replaced by his chief deputy, Mariana Ruiz-Temple.
President Trump is scheduled to visit McClellan Park, Calif., on Monday to be briefed on the wildfires. Mr. Trump acknowledged the severity of the fires spanning the entire coast. “I spoke to the folks in Oregon, Washington,” he said late Saturday. “They’ve never had anything like this.”
Mr. Trump cited a lack of forest management as a driving force behind the outbreak of fires, which drew sharp rebukes from officials on the West Coast.
Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles said it was important that the president witness the devastation for himself. Yet on the CNN program “State of the Union,” he assailed Mr. Trump for his efforts to loosen climate control regulations, saying that the administration has had its “head in the sand” on environmental issues.
“This is not just about forest management or raking,” Mr. Garcetti said. “Anybody who lives here in California is insulted by that, quite frankly, and he keeps perpetuating this lie.”
At least 25 people have died in recent blazes along the West Coast.
They lived more than 500 miles from each other — one in the wooded foothills of the Sierra Nevada, northeast of California’s capital, Sacramento, the other in a thickly forested canyon east of Oregon’s capital, Salem.
Josiah Williams, 16.
Wyatt Tofte, 13.
They were young lives cut short, victims of the great western wildfires of 2020.
The arrival of fire season in the American West always brings fear of fatalities, especially among the elderly and infirm, unable to escape the flames.
But the deaths of Josiah and Wyatt, two athletic teenagers, speak to the speed and the ferocity of the fires that this year have burned a record number of acres, four million in California and Oregon combined.
With thick smoke blanketing large parts of Washington, Oregon and California and tens of thousands of people evacuated, the fires have been the worst in decades, exacerbated by climate change. By Saturday, fires in California had burned 26 times more territory than they had at the same time last year.
Across the West this weekend, law enforcement authorities were scouring incinerated communities for missing persons. At least 25 people have died in the fires, with dozens more missing and peak fire season only beginning in many parts of the West.
Although fires in previous years have proved more deadly — a firestorm in 2018 that decimated the town of Paradise in California killed more than 80 people in a single night — the numbers obscure the trauma that each death brings to the small communities where wildfires have caused such terror.
Democratic lawmakers and state governors on the West Coast pushed back on Sunday against President Trump’s dismissal of the deadly wildfires devastating their states. Trump blamed the fires on poor leadership and “mismanagement” of forests.
In mentioning the wildfires, President Trump has routinely accused the state of California of forest mismanagement, a claim he repeated on Saturday night in Nevada.
On Sunday, Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Governors Jay Inslee of Washington and Kate Brown of Oregon and Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles appeared on news shows saying that the fires demonstrate a failure to tackle the effects of climate change.
“These are consequences of a warming planet that have huge impacts on rural America, with our forests, with our farming, with our fishing,” Mr. Merkley said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “This should not be blue or red. This should not be rural or urban. This is devastating to everyone.”
Governor Brown, in an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” conceded that forest mismanagement was a factor that had contributed to the wildfires, but argued that Republicans have not been interested in addressing that either.
“It’s decades of mismanagement of our forests in this country, and it is the failure to tackle climate change. We need to do both,” Governor Brown said, adding that she had previously proposed more investment in fire management but, “unfortunately, the Republicans walked away from the legislative session and we were unable to get that done.”
Governor Inslee directly framed the crisis as an electoral issue in his appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and urged Americans to get out “and vote on climate.”
“The time for excuses, for denial, for downplaying this, those days are over,” Mr. Inslee said. “The days of consequence are upon us.”
The Democratic nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr., also weighed in, saying in a statement that “the science is clear, and deadly signs like these are unmistakable — climate change poses an imminent, existential threat to our way of life.”
Zoom will offer relief after a California school is consumed by flames.
Ash fell from an apocalyptic orange sky as Jennifer Willin drove home last week from the only school in tiny Berry Creek, Calif., where she had picked up a pair of Wi-Fi hot spots for her daughters’ remote classes. Hours later, her cellphone erupted with an emergency alert: Evacuate immediately.
By the next morning, what one official described as a “massive wall of fire” had swept through the entire Northern California town of about 1,200 people, killing nine residents and destroying the school and almost every home and business.
Ms. Willin and her family escaped to a cramped hotel room 60 miles away. In her panic, she had forgotten to grab masks, but she had the hot spots, along with her daughters’ laptops and school books. On Monday, the two girls plan to meet with their teachers on Zoom, seeking some comfort amid the chaos.
Amid twin disasters, the remote learning preparations that schools made for the coronavirus crisis are providing a strange modicum of stability for teachers and students, letting many stay connected and take comfort in an unexpected form of virtual community.
“They’re still able to be in school,” Ms. Willin said, “even though the school burned to the ground.”
Erin Landguth, an associate professor in the school of public and community health science at the University of Montana and the lead author on the study, said research had shown that “after bad fire seasons, one would expect to see three to five times worse flu seasons” months later.
If you can’t leave an area that has high levels of smoke, the C.D.C. recommends limiting exposure by staying indoors with windows and doors closed and running air-conditioners in recirculation mode so that outside air isn’t drawn into your home.
Portable air purifiers are also recommended, though, like air-conditioners, they require electricity. If utilities cut off power, as has happened in California, those options are limited.
If you do have power, avoid frying food, which can increase indoor smoke.
Experts say it is especially important to avoid cigarettes. They also recommend avoiding strenuous outdoor activities when the air is bad. When outside, well-fitted N95 masks are also recommended, though they are in short supply because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Some other masks, particularly tightly woven ones made of different layers of fabric, can provide “pretty good filtration,” if they are fitted closely to the face, said Sarah Henderson, senior scientist in environmental health services at the British Columbia Center for Disease Control.
Multiple mega fires burning millions of acres. Millions of residents smothered in toxic air. Rolling blackouts and triple-digit heat waves. Climate change, in the words of one scientist, is smacking California in the face.
The crisis in the nation’s most populous state is more than just an accumulation of individual catastrophes. It is also an example of something climate experts have long worried about, but which few expected to see so soon: a cascade effect, in which a series of disasters overlap, triggering or amplifying each other.
“You’re toppling dominoes in ways that Americans haven’t imagined,” said Roy Wright, who directed resilience programs for the Federal Emergency Management Agency until 2018 and grew up in Vacaville, Calif., near one of this year’s largest fires. “It’s apocalyptic.”
The same could be said for the entire West Coast last week, to Washington and Oregon, where towns were decimated by infernos as firefighters were stretched to their limits.
California’s simultaneous crises illustrate how the ripple effect works. A scorching summer led to dry conditions never before experienced. That aridity helped make the season’s wildfires the biggest ever recorded. Six of the 20 largest wildfires in modern California history have occurred this year.
If climate change was a somewhat abstract notion a decade ago, today it is all too real for Californians. The intensely hot wildfires are not only chasing thousands of people from their homes but causing dangerous chemicals to leach into drinking water. Excessive heat warnings and suffocating smoky air have threatened the health of people already struggling during the pandemic. And the threat of more wildfires has led insurance companies to cancel homeowner policies and the state’s main utility to shut off power to tens of thousands of people pre-emptively.
Reporting was contributed by Mike Baker, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Chris Cameron, Thomas Fuller, Dan Levin Christina Morales, Rick Rojas, Kate Taylor and Lucy Tompkins.