Across the West, wildfires become more urban
TROUTDALE, Ore. — Some fires suddenly exploded in size. One in Montana doubled in 24 hours, charring 78 square miles overnight — an area bigger than Brooklyn, a borough in New York City. Already-burning fires started new ones, shooting embers like artillery barrages, including one that apparently jumped several miles across the Columbia River into Washington from Oregon, breaching a natural firebreak that long seemed impregnable.
Extreme fire behavior — difficult to predict and dangerous to fight — has been the watchword of the 2017 season across the West. More large, uncontrolled wildfires were burning in 10 Western states in early September than at any comparable time since 2006.
And those fires have leaned in, menacing more lives and property, by their size and their proximity, than in any recent season. Two firefighters died in Montana, and dozens of buildings and homes have been destroyed in California. About 150 hikers had to be rescued in Oregon when a fire encircled them. Evacuation orders — residents told to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice — reached to within 15 miles of downtown Portland. One of the largest fires ever recorded in Los Angeles County roared down from a canyon near Burbank, leapt a highway and forced hundreds of residents, from Burbank into Los Angeles itself, from their homes.
For Jerry and Cheri Brown, the disturbing and surprising contours of the season hit home this month when they stepped outside their motor home, which was parked on the banks of the Columbia River, where they were volunteering as hosts at a campground about an hour east of Portland.
It was raining fire, or close to it, they said. Small sticks and pine cones, smoking and still too hot to touch, were landing around them, whirled there by winds blasting from the Eagle Creek fire just to the east near Multnomah Falls, a place that has not seen a major wildfire in living memory.
Then, as they looked toward the Cascade Range slopes that rise steeply from the river, they saw the fire surge toward them through the Douglas fir, cedar and hemlock.
“I looked at her and she said, ‘Go now,’ ” said Brown, 74, a retired truck assembly worker, describing the scramble of their escape. “Scariest thing I’ve ever seen,” Brown added.
From California to Utah and Montana, thousands of others have also been forced to flee, and evacuation orders were still in place late last week for 23 active fires in four states, with nearly 21,000 firefighters in the field across the region.
Still, at least so far, the year is not a record, with 8.3 million acres burned as of mid-September. More than 10 million acres burned in 2015, the worst fire season in decades. But much of that land, as in previous years, was far from population centers, in remote areas of Alaska or western rangelands.
In stark contrast, this year’s fires are licking at people’s back doors or, in some cases, consuming the doors altogether. While some of that is because the fires are closer to major cities, there is another factor.
“As the West becomes more and more populated, we’re seeing more and more homes being built in these areas; the baby boomers retire, and they’re building these homes all over, in natural parts of the landscape,” said Jessica Gardetto, a spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Land Management. “We’re going to see more summers like this.”
Closer proximity to fire also means more bad air, as well as danger. Winds sent choking smoke from the fires into urban areas from Denver to Southern California. Seattle and Boise, Idaho, have had more days of “unhealthy” air this year, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency — many of those in the past few weeks — than in any year since 2007. Visiting college football coaches have worried about how the smoke might affect the performance of their players.
Changes in forest management have also fanned the flames, specialists say. Many areas of the West — where timber cutting has declined and even the thinning of trees for fire safety is sometimes contested by conservation groups — are choked with younger, smaller trees that can burn readily, patches of thick undergrowth or blighted areas where insects or disease have left dead trees standing in place.
Heavy black smoke rises as a wildfire burns dozens of acres in the Tujunga area of Los Angeles on Sept. 1, seen from nearby Burbank, Calif.