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Southern California Battles Fires

The wildfires in California have continued to spread, and forced evacuations in Los Angeles County.

It was way down to the east, and I wasn’t worried about it. And all of a sudden it just came across without any wind. I couldn’t believe it.

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The wildfires in California have continued to spread, and forced evacuations in Los Angeles County.CreditCredit…Eric Thayer for The New York Times

As weather improves in Northwest, California is still ‘dry and ripe for wildfires.’

The prospect of scattered rain in the Pacific Northwest raised hopes for better firefighting conditions in Washington and Oregon on Wednesday, after weeks of oppressive heat, hazardous air and unpredictable fires that have grown with terrifying speed up and down the coast.

Though the storm system was not forecast to be significant, the possibility of rain clouds in coastal regions — instead of smoke plumes and falling ash — was a lifeline for residents after weeks of increasingly grim news. More than 30 people have died in wildfires in the past two months, hundreds of homes have been destroyed, and thousands of people remain in evacuation shelters.

Inland and to the south, the forecast was less encouraging. Parts of Central Oregon were expecting gusts up to 35 miles per hour in the afternoon that could contribute to a “significant spread” of new and existing fires, the National Weather Service in Medford, Ore., said.

And in California, there was not even temporary relief in sight, with the state fire agency saying Tuesday, “With no significant precipitation in sight, California remains dry and ripe for wildfires.” State leaders, facing not just this wildfire season, spoke about the need to face an indefinite future of fires worsened by climate change.

“Firefighters themselves, with decades of experience, are telling me that they’ve never seen fires like this before because of the extreme aridity combined with wind,” Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington State said at a news conference Tuesday.

Late Tuesday, emergency officials reported progress on some of the biggest fires around the region. The growth of the Beachie Creek fire, which has burned more than 190,000 acres east of Salem, Ore., had slowed, and the fire was 20 percent contained as of Wednesday morning. The August Complex fire, which has burned almost 800,000 acres north of Sacramento, was 30 percent contained, and the 220,000-acre North Complex fire, to its east, was 18 percent contained.

Governor Inslee said that Washington State was now in position to help its neighbors, if in a small way, by sharing some of its resources with Oregon.

“We’re confident right now that we have enough personnel and equipment to protect our communities,” he said. “It’s not a lot but it is a gesture that, again, we are all in this together.”

But he also warned residents of Western states that stepping outside exposed them to some of the worst air conditions in the world. The air, he said, was at “historically polluted levels” and “unhealthy at best and hazardous at worst, according to our state health experts.”

Physical hazards remain even in areas where the fires are no longer active, the authorities also warned. In addition to damaged structures and trees at risk of collapse, hundreds of electrical poles have been burned, leaving live wires on roadways or at risk of falling on pedestrians. And countless trees and branches are now dangers to anyone nearby. In a dashboard video tweeted by the Oregon State Police, a trooper’s car can be seeing driving through the haze of a forested road when a huge tree suddenly collapses on the vehicle.

Some of the planet’s most polluted skies are over the West Coast.

ImageFirefighters battled the El Dorado Fire in Angelus Oaks, Calif., on Tuesday.
Credit…Eric Thayer for The New York Times

The billowing wildfire smoke that has blanketed much of the West Coast with a caustic haze also began settling into the atmosphere thousands of miles away.

West Coast residents from San Francisco to Seattle and beyond have for days suffered from the smoke, which has sent air-quality readings soaring to hazardous levels, closed some schools and led officials to shut parks and beaches while pleading for people to stay indoors. In Seattle, Harborview Medical Center reported seeing a rise in the number of people seeking help for breathing issues — many of them people with underlying conditions such as asthma or lung disease.

“The air outside right now is at historically polluted levels,” Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington said.

Air that was considered unhealthy to breathe was recorded as far away as Montana and up into Canada, though the high-level haze extended much further. Propelled by the jet stream and a high-pressure system over the Great Lakes, the smoke began arriving at higher altitudes across much of the continent.

Brian LaSorsa, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in the Baltimore and Washington region, said he first noticed the smoke over the region on Monday, in the upper levels of the atmosphere.

“Obviously we don’t see smoke very often from wildfires,” Mr. LaSorsa said.

But on the ground along the East Coast, the air quality remained clear. There was a possibility the smoke could descend, possibly later this week if a cold front comes through, Mr. LaSorsa said, but he expected it to stay aloft.

Intense fires are testing the limits of traditional firefighting techniques.

Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

The basic techniques for fighting wildfires have changed little in decades. Aircraft dropping water and chemicals from the sky, and on the ground bulldozers, adzes, chain saws and the boots of thousands of firefighters racing to hold back the flames.

But the fires themselves are changing, partly as a consequence of climate change, burning hotter and more rapidly and destroying record acreage.

California alone experienced a fivefold increase in annual burned area between 1972 and 2018, and this year more than 5 million acres have already burned in California, Oregon and Washington State. Over time, wildfires are becoming more frequent, and the seasons are growing more intense.

The increasingly dangerous conditions are testing the limits of traditional firefighting techniques, experts say. “You can’t look to wildland firefighters to protect you if you don’t address the complexities of climate change,” said Jim Whittington, a former spokesman for firefighting agencies.

The firefighters rely on techniques developed over the decades to hold fires at bay.

Along with using helicopters and tanker aircraft to drop the water and flame retardant, there is arduous labor on the ground. Some of it requires carefully burning areas in the path of an advancing fire to try to rob it of the fuel it needs to keep progressing. It can also involve dousing flames with water brought in by truck — or, in rough country, hiked in along with hoses and pumps.

At the most fundamental, though, it means workers using hand tools to dig the fire lines — the borders, cleared of trees and shrub, that can stop a fire from advancing by removing all vegetation and scraping down to the “mineral soil,” the bare dirt.

“Despite our modern 2020 world, with an app for everything, there is no app for digging fire lines,” said Holly Krake, a United States Forest Service spokeswoman working on the Riverside fire in Oregon.

‘Everything of ours burned.’ A ride through Phoenix, Ore., reveals the destruction.

Credit…Alisha Jucevic for The New York Times

Phoenix, Ore., a town in of 4,500 people about 20 miles from the California border, has seen maybe more destruction from fire than any other town this year.

In the span of a few hours on Sept. 8, the Almeda Fire traveled up the freeway and through Phoenix and neighboring Talent, laying waste to much of the towns. Local officials estimated that the fire destroyed nearly 1,800 homes and businesses.

The ruin was so widespread that a week later, authorities had still blocked entry to the town, worried about the danger of downed power lines and sinkholes. That left Jack Nicas, a Times reporter, standing on the outskirts of town, struggling to find a way in.

Then a yellow school bus pulled up, piloted by a local pastor. “I can take you there,” said the pastor, Lee Gregory. “No one else can.”

What followed was an emotional tour through the destruction. A dozen of the mobile-home parks that housed retirees and immigrant farm workers were destroyed, including where Ramona Curiel de Pacheco lived with her family. Mexican immigrants, they had built a happy life in Phoenix, but now their home was gone and they didn’t have insurance. “Everything of ours burned,” she said. “We couldn’t even get our children’s papers.”

Also burned was Barkley’s Tavern, long Phoenix’s lone bar, built in 1898. Mr. Gregory got out of the bus to peer at the charred remains. “Like most taverns, a place where people found a lot of fellowship and friendship,” he said.

Just past Phoenix, in Talent, Daniel Verner was searching the rubble of his former home for the box that held the ashes of his late wife. She had died of cancer 11 months earlier. Next door, Cherie Grubbs was looking for mementos of her son, who was murdered in 2011.

The neighbors were in a relationship, forged by heartache. “We kind of shared this incredible, unbearable grief,” Ms. Grubbs said. “We kind of thought we paid our grief dues.”

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