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Wildfires rage across Pacific Northwest: Truckers abandon rigs on I-5, smoke drifts to New Mexico; towns devastated

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/9/2020 John Bacon, Joshua Yeager and Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY
a tree with a sunset in the background: A firefighter battles the Creek Fire in the Shaver Lake community of Fresno County, Calif., on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020. © Noah Berger, AP A firefighter battles the Creek Fire in the Shaver Lake community of Fresno County, Calif., on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020.

FRESNO, Calif. – Wildfires whipped through isolated communities in two states and left backcountry campers and hikers stranded, requiring helicopters to airlift more than 140 to safety, authorities said.

About 40 wildfires were burning in California alone. Blazes were also reported in Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming and Montana. Smoke has been detected at least as far east as New Mexico.

The fires devastated some isolated communities. In Oregon, a fast-moving wildfire caused "catastrophic damage" and probably loss of life in the town of Blue River, east of Eugene, Lane County officials said. At least 80 to 100 homes burned, said County Administrator Steve Mokrohisky at an emergency commissioners meeting Tuesday.

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"We expect that other homes and businesses within the fire area have burned," Mokrohisky said. "And we should expect loss of life from this fire."

About 30 homes were destroyed in the town of Big Creek in California,  resident Toby Wait said.

The fires came during a Labor Day weekend that trapped many outdoors enthusiasts in the back country. Helicopter pilots braved thick smoke to locate stranded people and their pets. 

The fires also led to power outages. California's largest utility cut off power to more than 170,000 customers Tuesday as intense heat, dry conditions and high winds fueled historic wildfires across the Pacific Northwest.

Almost 1,000 fires have raged in California since Aug. 15, many sparked by lightning strikes. The state already has set a grim record with more than 2 million acres burned this year – more than 3,000 square miles – with several weeks remaining in the heart of fire season.

California ablaze: Striking satellite imagery shows how the fires are unfolding

In Oregon and Washington state, almost 250,000 homes and businesses in the two states were without power, and the small town of Malden, in Washington's Whitman County, was devastated by flames.

"The scale of this disaster really can't be expressed in words," Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers said in a statement. "The fire will be extinguished but a community has been changed for a lifetime."

Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz tweeted that "we’re still seeing new fire starts in every corner of the state.''

Two massive San Francisco Bay Area fires were largely contained but a third, the fast-growing Creek Fire, had raced through about 212 square miles and remained 0% contained. Fire officials haven't even begun to assess the structures lost to the wildfire but know it's extensive, they said. 

"This fire has already hit us hard," said Dean Gould, Sierra National Forest supervisor. "I know on the forest staff, personally, there's been loss of homes."

More than 60 hikers and campers were initially unable to evacuate Lake Edison and China Peak areas due to the dense smoke cover. Fresno County Lt. Brandon Purcell said the trapped people were safe but "can't get out because of roadblocks." 

The California National Guard said later Tuesday that a Stockton-based Chinook helicopter shuttled 46 people and four dogs to safety at Fresno Yosemite International Airport. More aircraft were attempting to rescue others trapped by the fire, the guard said.

Volunteer firefighter Brian Fowlie worked alongside his crew to protect homes in the community of North Fork, where he lives. He had been on duty for 48 hours. 

"It's tough, physically. You're breathing the smoke. Your feet hurt. Your knees hurt," Fowlie said. "But we're not going home until we're done."

Choppers rescue more than 140 from Creek Fire near Fresno

More than 140 people were rescued Tuesday as the Creek Fire exploded in size in the Fresno and Madera counties in California 

Rescue missions began around 3 a.m. PST Tuesday and the California National Guard and Navy helicopter pilots successfully completed eight trips to the wilderness bringing dozens of people back each time. 

Smoke hampered rescue efforts much of Monday but later in the evening weather improved,  National Guard Col. David Hall said. The fire is at more than 140,000 acres.

Isaac Rodriguez of San Diego and a group of friends went backpacking above Shaver Lake and planned to camp near Frog Lake. The group mistook the plume of smoke as an approaching thunderstorm. "They took care of us pretty well there," he said. "...We knew we couldn't get out."

– Sheyanne N Romero and Joshua Yeager, Visalia Times-Delta

Camping trip became race from flames

Lor Her never imagined his High Sierra fishing getaway would nearly cost him his life.

“We ran into flames half a mile out of our campsite," Her said. “If we’d stayed another hour or two, we’d be gone.”

Her, of Fresno, was just one of hundreds of people trapped in the raging Creek Fire that crept up on Labor Day revelers. He had gone to the Kaiser Pass area, deep in the Sierra National Forest.

When Her and his friends saw smoke billowing, they packed up their campsite and attempted to drive away. A wall of flames blocked their way. They turned around and were able to find an alternate route down Highway 168. 

Abandoned tents, tarps and campsites littered the road on the way down. But the made it.

– Amy Alonzo, Reno Gazette Journal and Josh Yeager, Visalia Times-Delta

Dad guided to safety by worried daughter as fire closes in

For a few anxious hours, Ali Amaya tried to help her father navigate past blocked roads and traffic jams to safety from the wildfires closing in on his home in Talent, Oregon.


Video: Thousands Still Without Power As SCE Prepares For Public Safety Power Shutoffs (CBS Los Angeles)

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There were more than a few anxious moments. Amaya said her relatives told her they feared the town was in danger. It was "so scary and stressful hearing him and all his neighbors screaming," she said. "We got him out on a back road heading towards a small town. No idea about the house or his neighbors."

A friend suggested a way out and it couldn't have come soon enough. At times, her dad's car was "at a complete standstill with power lines down from fallen trees," Amaya said.

– Ashley Shaffer

Truckers abandoned semis as fire closes I-5 

Some truckers abandoned their rigs as a wildfire spreading north from Ashland, Oregon, resulted in the closure of Interstate 5, the vital transportation link spanning the West Coast.

Drivers heading north on I-5 were being turned back at the California-Oregon border due to the fire in Jackson County, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation. Freeway traffic was also stopped from south Ashland to south Medford.

At least one Ashland, Oregon, neighborhood was under an evacuation notice.

– Mike Chapman, Redding Record Searchlight

'At least I have my life' – Evacuees fled with few belongings

Harrowing stories emerged Tuesday from families who sought safety at a shelter after hastily leaving their homes as the flames of a wildfire closed in on their Oregon neighborhoods.

"A lot of people lost their homes last night," said Clyde Nance, who feared his own Mill City residence might be among them.

Nance, 59, had evacuated the home about 2:30 a.m. PST after seeing the fire encroaching the ridge and watching fire trucks arrive. "You could tell, it's time to get the heck out of here," he said at the Oregon State Fairgrounds, where a temporary evacuation site has been set up.

About 100 families — with cats, dogs and horses in tow — evacuated to the fairgrounds, 2330 17th St. NE in Salem. Volunteers from Red Cross Cascades Region set up an intake center for those impacted by the fires in the parking lot across from the Jackman-Long Building.

Ricky Woods and his five children evacuated from their Stayton home not long after 4 a.m. They jumped in the car without grabbing much of anything. "If it burns down all my (stuff), at least I have my life," he said.

– Connor Radnovich and Capi Lynn, Salem Statesman Journal

California governor says fires already way worse than a year ago

California Gov. Gavin Newsom says wildfire count in the state so far this year is far beyond the number last year, evidence of the effects of climate change.

Newsom tweeted that there have been 7,606 fires so far this year, compared to 4,927 last year. And when it comes to acreage, fires have blackened 7,606 acres so far in 2020, up from 118,000 acres in 2019.

About 40 wildfires were burning in California on Tuesday, taxing the state's ability to fight them.

Wildfire smoke shrouds Southwest

Smoke from about 40 wildfires across California has thrown a shroud over Southern California – reaching as far as New Mexico. In some areas, it could be days before residents get to see blue skies again.

Collectively, fires are producing smoke that's headed east into other portions of the Southwest.

"There's thick smoke covering most of Arizona," said Phil Gonsalves, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego. "I can say with some confidence it's east of Albuquerque."

Thick smoke is high in the atmosphere and should not directly impact anyone at lower elevations, according to the National Weather Service. Conditions, however, may be worse in areas several thousand feet above sea level.

"It's more hazy than it should be this time of year. Not what you'd expect from a desert in September. Very gloomy," said Brian Kraus, 74, a resident of Yucca Valley, elevation 3,300 feet and about 25 miles north of Palm Springs.  

The South Coast Air Quality Management District issued a smoke advisory for Southern California through Tuesday because of the El Dorado and Bobcat fires.

Evacuation orders issued in Oregon

In Oregon, a fast-moving wildfire caused "catastrophic damage" and probably loss of life in the town of Blue River east of Eugene-Springfield, Lane County officials said. Hundreds of people were evacuated. At least one fire responder re at least 80 to 100 homes burned, said County Administrator Steve Mokrohisky at an emergency commissioners meeting Tuesday.

"We expect that other homes and businesses within the fire area have burned," Mokrohisky said. "And we should expect loss of life from this fire."

Evacuations were ordered for several communities in Marion County, home to the state capital of Salem. The Sheriff's Office issued a Level 3 – "Go" – notice to residents in the communities of Gates, Mill City, Detroit, Idanha, Mehama and the North Fork corridor. Residents were urged to leave the area immediately.

"The extreme fire activity in the area poses an imminent danger to anyone who chooses to remain in the evacuated area," Sheriff Joe Kast said in a statement. "Our deputies are committed to helping keep our community safe. However, conditions have become too dangerous for them to continue with evacuation efforts at this time."

Mill City resident Mike Ferris said he was able to evacuate his home around 2 a.m.  "As soon as we got to the edge of town we could see houses and trees burning on both sides of the road," Ferris said.

Eric Johnson, deputy fire staff for Northwest Oregon Fire Management, warned that the wildfire weather forecast is "extremely rare and occurs only a few times a century." Almost 140,000 homes and businesses were without power.

Blackouts in place for parts of at least 22 California counties

Pacific Gas and Electric, which serves Central and Northern California, said it was working to limit the number of customers facing blackouts. Parts of 22 counties and seven tribal communities were facing some "de-energization," the utility said. The utility said it hoped to start bringing power back to some areas Wednesday.

"Once the weather subsides and it is safe to do so, PG&E crews will begin patrolling power lines, repairing damaged equipment and restoring customers," the utility said in a statement. Safety inspections of approximately 10,625 miles of transmission and distribution lines "equivalent to twice the distance from San Francisco to Tokyo" will be conducted, PG&E said.

The power news was a bit better to the south. Southern California Edison tweeted that "Third straight day of #energyconservation paid off. No ISO-ordered power outages during the #LaborDay2020 #heatwave. We truly appreciate your thoughtful use of energy."

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Southern California also battling fires, one sparked by gender reveal event

In Southern California, crews scrambled to douse several fires that roared to life in searing temperatures, including one that closed mountain roads in Angeles National Forest and forced the evacuation of the historic Mount Wilson Observatory. The Los Angeles County Fire Department told residents of Duarte, Bradbury and Monrovia near the forest to get ready for a possible evacuation.

In San Bernardino County, Cal Fire said the El Dorado Fire that started Saturday morning was caused by a smoke-generating pyrotechnic device used by a couple to reveal their baby’s gender. Authorities said the couple was cooperating with investigators and that no determination on criminal charges had been made.

Fire and emergency managers said Tuesday the fire had grown to about 16 square miles and was 16% contained. 

In eastern San Diego County, a fire destroyed at least 10 structures after burning 16 square miles and prompting evacuations near the remote community of Alpine in the Cleveland National Forest.

More: California's oldest state park, home to iconic redwoods, expects to close for year due to fires

Washington town of Malden ravaged by flames

Malden, a town of about 200 people 30 miles south of Spokane, was torn apart by multiple blazes driven by 45-mph winds. Sheriff Myers said the largest began Monday afternoon and raced through the tiny downtown. The fire station, post office, city hall/library complex and other prominent buildings "completely burned to the ground," he said. He estimated that 80% of the homes and structures in Malden were destroyed. 

Authorities were working on a plan to take inventory of the damage and to account for residents who were in their homes or in the communities when the firestorms hit.

"I just hope we don't find the fire took more than homes and buildings," Myers said. "I pray everyone got out in time."

a boat sitting on top of a mountain: Charred rubble remains after a wildfire decimated the small town of Malden, Wash., Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, destroying an estimated 70% of homes in the northern Whitman County community, The Spokesman-Review reports. © Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review via AP Charred rubble remains after a wildfire decimated the small town of Malden, Wash., Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, destroying an estimated 70% of homes in the northern Whitman County community, The Spokesman-Review reports.

Bacon reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: Sheyanne N Romero and David Rodriguez, Visalia Times-Delta; Zach Urness and David Davis, Salem Statesman Journal; Sherry Barkas and Colin Atagi, Palm Springs Desert Sun;  The (Eugene, Ore.) Register Guard; The Associated Press

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Wildfires rage across Pacific Northwest: Truckers abandon rigs on I-5, smoke drifts to New Mexico; towns devastated

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