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Wildfires, winds and extreme temperatures are battering several Western states.
Raging wildfires, windy conditions and a heat wave with temperatures reaching upward of 100 degrees converged in a dangerous combination over the weekend, as extreme weather continued to batter much of the Western United States on Tuesday.
In California, helicopters battled smoky skies overnight in an attempt to rescue dozens of people trapped in the fiery depths of the Sierra National Forest. At least 35 people were brought to safety in overnight flights, but officials said others were still waiting to be rescued Tuesday morning.
In Oregon, whipping winds and dry conditions have helped fuel fire outbreaks. South of Portland, officials in Marion County implored some residents to “please leave now” as fires that have burned through more than 27,000 acres approached more densely populated areas.
And in Washington State, officials said that 80 percent of homes and structures in Malden, a town of 200 in the eastern part of the state, had been destroyed by fire. Deputies began going door to door and announcing evacuations, but officials said many buildings, including the fire station, post office, city hall and the library, were completely burned to the ground.
“The scale of this disaster really can’t be expressed in words,” said Brett J. Myers, the sheriff of Whitman County, Wash. “I pray everyone got out in time.”
From California to Colorado, the dueling threats left millions of people in the West grappling with dangerous weather conditions on Tuesday, adding to the devastation of a year marked by illness and job loss during the coronavirus pandemic.
A gender-reveal celebration gone wrong ignited a wildfire that consumed thousands of acres east of Los Angeles, and utility companies were shutting off power for more than 170,000 customers in Northern California, where record amounts of land have burned this year.
In Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert said that the State Capitol building would be closed on Tuesday because of “high winds and dangerous conditions.”
And in Colorado, fiery conditions and 101-degree weather are giving way to another extreme: a rapid cold front. Snow was falling in Denver on Tuesday morning.
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‘We lost our home’: A small California town was devastated by the Creek Fire.
It was an old company town tucked away in the Sierra Nevada, where life revolved around shifts at the Edison hydroelectric plant. Neighbors visited at the post office and had coffee at a general store that smoked its own meats. And every wildfire season, the threat of destruction loomed like the granite rock faces towering over their town.
On Monday, residents of Big Creek, Calif., population 200, began coming to grips with the reality that this time much of their tiny community in the Sierra National Forest northeast of Fresno had burned.
“We lost our home,” said Nettie Carroll, 40, who taught science and has lived in the area for 16 years. “It looks like everything is completely gone.”
Big Creek residents who fled the galloping Creek Fire over the weekend said that more than a dozen homes had been incinerated. The Creek Fire had burned 135,000 acres by Tuesday and was zero percent contained, according to Cal Fire, the state fire agency.
From hotel rooms in Fresno and Modesto or family members’ spare bedrooms where they had fled, Big Creek’s evacuees spent Monday sending one another photographs of flames and char and comparing notes on what had survived and what had not.
The school, which has just 47 students, appeared to suffer some damage but was still standing, residents said. They said the community church, volunteer fire department and post office all apparently survived.
The fire also forced workers to evacuate the 1,000 megawatt Big Creek hydroelectric project, which can power 650,000 homes and was America’s first large-scale pumped hydro plant of its kind with the ability to produce power and store electricity. There was no immediate indication the plant had been damaged.
Even as the greatest concern was focused on the Creek Fire, some two dozen fires were burning up and down the state, prompting warnings that more residents in some places could be forced to evacuate. The Bobcat Fire is raging in the Angeles National Forest, east of Los Angeles, and predictions of high winds Tuesday evening have raised fears that communities in the foothills could be threatened.
Also in Southern California, the El Dorado Fire had burned over 10,000 acres in San Bernardino County. And closer to San Diego, the Valley Fire had churned through more than 17,000 acres and forced some communities to evacuate.
The fires burning now are adding to an already brutal toll for California in 2020. As of Monday morning, Cal Fire reported that eight people have died and more than two million acres have burned across the state this year, destroying more than 3,300 structures and narrowly edging out a 2018 record for most acres burned in a single year.
In Colorado, ‘We switched from summer to winter in a day.’
On Monday, the scorched skies around Denver were thick with haze, smoke and ash from a wildfire roaring through the dried-out forests near Rocky Mountain National Park. By Tuesday morning, there was snow on the ground and temperatures had plunged more than 50 degrees.
“We switched from summer to winter in a day,” said David Barjenbruch, a senior forecaster at the National Weather Service in Boulder. Outside his office, an inch or so of snow already sticking to hillsides and tree branches on Tuesday morning offered a preview of a daylong snowstorm that was expected to dump more than a foot in the foothills and mountains and three to six inches around Denver.
Mr. Barjenbruch said the weather had rolled in from north of the Arctic Circle, traveling along the spine of the Rocky Mountains. Some of Colorado’s ski resorts, which have been preparing for a socially distanced ski season, were expected to get an early dump, though probably not enough to last till they open around Thanksgiving. Live cameras showed that mountain passes were already a blur of white.
Across Denver, people were hauling potted herbs and flowers indoors and wrapping their bushes in burlap and plastic. Mr. Barjenbruch said one of the biggest threats posed by the storm was that overloaded tree branches, still leafed out for summer, could snap and tumble onto power lines.
Forecasters and fire crews were hoping that the snow might damp the Cameron Peak fire in Northern Colorado, a blaze that exploded to more than 102,000 acres and forced a round of evacuations on Monday. Sheriff Justin Smith of Larimer County said the respite from a record string of 90-degree days and punishing drought across Colorado was “certainly not going to stop this fire,” the Colorado Sun reported. It remains to be seen whether fire conditions bounce right back to hot, windy and dry, but Mr. Barjenbruch said snow was already falling on the fire on Tuesday.
“It’s going to hang on trees and give the fire no fuel to burn, and give firefighters a chance to catch up,” he said. “This is the best thing that could’ve happened for this fire.”
PG&E has shut off power to tens of thousands of customers over wildfire fears.
The strong winds, hot temperatures and dry conditions along the West Coast sent utilities scrambling to keep the lights on, even as California’s largest electricity provider cut power to 170,000 of its customers to prevent wildfires.
Utilities in Oregon and Washington State reported that tens of thousands of their customers were without power on Tuesday. But nowhere has the power grid been more under siege than in Northern and Central California, where more than two million acres have burned and scorching temperatures have prompted calls by the system managers for federal assistance.
Late Monday, Pacific Gas & Electric began the largest safety power shutoff of the year in 22 counties across Northern and Central California. Some customers could remain in the dark for as long as two days.
PG&E, the state’s largest power provider, just emerged from bankruptcy this summer, after amassing $30 billion in liability from wildfires in 2017 and 2018, including the devastating Camp Fire that killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise. The utility pleaded guilty to manslaughter for all but one of the deaths and for starting the fire, sparked by the failure of a 100-year-old tower.
Since the Camp Fire, PG&E has worked to improve its safety and prevention measures, including use of intentional safety blackouts. The widespread use of the tactic a year ago left millions in the dark for as long as a week, angering residents, business owners and government officials. Regulators ordered PG&E to limit cutting power to a measure of last resort.
A heat wave last month led the manager of the state’s electric grid to order rolling blackouts to customers throughout the state because of fear of electricity shortages, though some experts argued that the problem was planning and management of the system.
PG&E officials said extreme weather conditions this week forced the company to use the program, again.
Southern California Edison, the state’s second largest utility, experienced record electricity demand Saturday and Sunday, as days of temperatures above 100 degrees tested the electricity grid’s ability to keep up.
One fire in California was caused by a gender-reveal celebration.
An elaborate plan to reveal a baby’s gender went disastrously wrong when a “smoke-generating pyrotechnic device” ignited a wildfire that consumed thousands of acres east of Los Angeles over the holiday weekend, the authorities said.
The device ignited four-foot-tall grass at El Dorado Ranch Park on Saturday morning, and efforts to douse the flames with water bottles proved fruitless, Capt. Bennet Milloy of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, said Monday. The family called 911 to report the fire and shared photos with investigators.
No injuries or serious structural damage were immediately reported.
Criminal charges were being considered, but would not be filed before the fire is extinguished, Captain Milloy said. Cal Fire could also ask those responsible to reimburse the cost of fighting the fire, he added.
Gender-reveal celebrations became popular about a decade ago as a way for new parents to learn the sex of their child, often in the presence of family and friends. Simple versions of these celebrations often involve couples cutting open pink or blue cakes, or popping balloons filled with pink or blue confetti.
In April 2017 near Green Valley, Ariz., about 26 miles south of Tucson, an off-duty Border Patrol agent fired a rifle at a target filled with colored powder and Tannerite, a highly explosive substance, expecting to learn the gender of his child.
When placed with colorful packets of powder and shot at, Tannerite can fill the air with colorful residue for gender-reveal parties: blue for boys or pink for girls.
The resulting explosion sparked a fire that spread to the Coronado National Forest. It consumed more than 45,000 acres, resulted in $8 million in damages and required nearly 800 firefighters to battle it. The border agent immediately reported the fire and admitted that he started it, the United States Attorney in the District of Arizona said in September 2018.
Reporting was contributed by Tim Arango, Jack Healy, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Sarah Mervosh, Christina Morales, Ivan Penn, Kate Taylor, Lucy Tompkins and Allyson Waller.