Firefighters on the United States West Coast have taken advantage of a break in hot, dry weather to make gains against massive wildfires burning across three states.
- After days of hot and windy conditions, a weather change is providing some relief to firefighters
- US President Donald Trump is set to visit firefighters in California
- Some Oregon residents are wondering “what else could go wrong” in a year of pandemic, protests and now wildfires
Flames have destroyed thousands of homes and at least half a dozen small towns in the latest outbreak of wildfires that have raged across the country’s west this summer, collectively scorching thousands of square kilometres and killing at least 26 people since early August.
But after four days of treacherously hot, windy weather, a glimmer of hope arrived in the form of calmer winds blowing in from the ocean, bringing cooler, more-moist conditions that helped firefighters make headway against blazes that had burned largely unchecked earlier in the week.
The same smoke that painted California skies orange also helped crews corral the state’s deadliest blaze of the year by blocking the sun, reducing temperatures and raising humidity, officials said.
Smoke created cooler conditions in Oregon too, but it was also blamed for creating the dirtiest air in at least 35 years in some places.
The weather conditions that led up to the fires and fed the flames were likely a once-in-a-generation event, said Greg Jones, a professor and research climatologist at Linfield University in McMinnville, Oregon.
A large high-pressure area stretching from the desert south-west to Alaska brought strong winds from the east toward the West Coast, reducing relative humidity to as low as 8 per cent and bringing desert-like conditions, even to the coast, Professor Jones said.
Instead of the offshore flows that the north-west normally enjoys, the strong easterly winds pushed fires down the western slopes of the Cascade Range, which extends from Canada down into northern California.
It isn’t clear if global warming caused the conditions, Professor Jones said, but a warmer world can increase the likelihood of extreme events and contribute to their severity.
In California, tens of thousands of firefighters were battling 28 major wildfires, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Trump to visit fireground
President Donald Trump will visit California on Monday (local time) for a briefing on the West Coast fires, the White House announced.
The White House said Mr Trump would meet with local and federal officials near the California state capital of Sacramento.
He has said that western governors bear some of the blame for intense fire seasons in recent years, alleging that they have engaged in poor forest management.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and the governors of California, Oregon and Washington state — all Democrats — have said the fires are a consequence of global warming.
“We absolutely must act now to avoid a future defined by an unending barrage of tragedies like the one American families are enduring across the West today,” Mr Biden said.
Oregon resident wonders ‘What else could go wrong?’
For people already enduring the coronavirus pandemic, the resulting economic fallout and political tensions evident in the Black Lives Matter protests and far-right counter protests, the fires added a new layer of misery.
From a population of 4.2 million, Oregon has seen more than 29,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 500 deaths.
Protests have been ongoing in the city in response to the death of George Floyd back in May, and escalated last month with the arrival of a caravan of Trump supporters.
An antifa supporter also shot a member of a right-wing group.
Now, about 500,000 Oregonians are under evacuation warnings or orders to leave.
“What’s next? You have the protests, coronavirus pandemic, now the wildfires. What else can go wrong?” lamented Danielle Oliver, 40, of Happy Valley, south-east of Portland.
Ms Oliver has an autoimmune disorder that makes her vulnerable to wildfire smoke, so she agreed to evacuate. She was nervous about going to a shelter because of the virus, but sleeping in a car with her husband, 15-year-daughter, two dogs and a cat was not a viable option.
George Coble had no home to return to. He came with some of his employees to a wasteland of charred tree trunks just outside Mill City, Oregon.
Mr Coble lost everything: his fence-and-post business, five houses in a family compound and vintage cars, including a 1967 Mustang.
The family — three generations that lived in the compound — evacuated with seven people, three horses, five dogs and a cat.
“We’ll just keep working and keep your head up and thank God everybody got out,” Mr Coble said.
“There are other people that lost their family. Just be thankful for what you did get out with.”