Wildfires in the American West, including the largest in the country, which is presently burning in Oregon, are causing hazy skies as far away as New York as the immense infernos pour smoke and ash into the air in columns up to six miles high.
The skies over New York City were cloudy Tuesday as strong winds pushed smoke east from California, Oregon, Montana, and other states. Oregon’s Bootleg Fire exploded to 606 square miles (1,569 square kilometers), over half the area of Rhode Island.
Fires raged on both sides of the Sierra Nevada in California. The Tamarack Fire, which started in Alpine County, California’s Alps, forced the evacuation of several communities and grew to 61 square miles (158 square kilometers) with no containment. The Dixie Fire, which burned near the site of the deadly Paradise Fire in 2018, was more than 90 square miles (163 square kilometers) in size and threatened small communities in the Feather River Valley region.
The smoke on the East Coast reminded me of last fall, when multiple large fires burning in Oregon during the state’s worst fire season in recent memory not only choked the local skies with pea-soup smoke but also impacted air quality thousands of miles away.
“We’re seeing lots of fires producing a tremendous amount of smoke, and … by the time that smoke gets to the eastern portion of the country where it’s usually thinned out, there’s just so much smoke in the atmosphere from all these fires that it’s still pretty thick,” said David Lawrence, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “Over the last two years we’ve seen this phenomenon.”
Tony Galvez fled the Tamarack Fire in California on Tuesday with his daughter at the last minute and found out later that his home was gone.
“I lost my whole life, everything I’ve ever had. The kids are what’s going to matter,” he said as he fielded calls from relatives. “I got three teenagers. They’re going to go home to a moonscape.”
The Oregon fire has ravaged the state’s southern region, spreading at a rate of up to 4 miles (6 kilometers) per day, fueled by gusting winds and critically dry weather that has turned trees and undergrowth into tinderboxes.
Firefighters have had to retreat from the flames for ten days in a row as fireballs leap from treetop to treetop, trees explode, embers fly ahead of the fire to start new blazes, and, in some cases, the heat creates its own weather of shifting winds and dry lightning. Massive clouds of smoke and ash have risen up to 6 miles into the sky and can be seen for more than 100 miles.
The fire in the Fremont-Winema National Forest merged with a smaller nearby blaze on Tuesday, and it has repeatedly breached a perimeter of treeless dirt and fire retardant meant to slow its progress.
A red flag weather warning indicating dangerous fire conditions was in effect until Tuesday, and possibly longer. The fire has been brought under control to a third of its original size.
“We’re here for as long as it takes to safely confine this monster,” said Incident Commander Rob Allen.
At some point during the fire, at least 2,000 homes were evacuated, and another 5,000 were threatened. At least 70 homes and more than 100 outbuildings have been destroyed by fire. Thick smoke has engulfed the area, which has already been subjected to months of drought and extreme heat. There has been no death.
Extremely dry conditions and heat waves caused by climate change have made fighting wildfires more difficult. In the last 30 years, climate change has made the West much warmer and drier, and it will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
Officials announced on Tuesday that all recreational and public access to state-managed lands in eastern Washington would be temporarily closed beginning Friday due to fire danger. A total of 2,260 square miles (5,853 square kilometers) of land will be affected by the closure.
The area on the Bootleg Fire’s northeastern flank is ancestral territory of the Klamath Tribes, who have used intentional, managed fire to keep the fuel load low and prevent such explosive blazes. In a court case nearly 30 years ago, the tribe lost its hunting, fishing, and gathering rights, but the area of lakes and marshes remains central to their culture and heritage.
The tribe, which regained federal recognition from the United States government in 1986 after losing it in the 1950s, has collaborated with the nonprofit organization The Nature Conservancy to thin forests in the Sycan Marsh by using planned fires on the landscape. The area of wetland and high-elevation forest is part of the tribe’s traditional homeland and burned in the blaze this week.
“It’s so devastating. The fire burned through a lot of area where I’ve hunted with my father and brother and other folks who have since passed away,” said Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry. “It’s all our aboriginal territory and it’s certainly going to impact big game and cultural sites and resources.”
(Source: The Associated Press)