Across West, wild­fires scar­ily be­come more ur­ban

The Buffalo News - - NATIONAL NEWS - By Kirk John­son

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, stand­ing along­side her hus­band in an evac­u­a­tion camp across the river in Wash­ing­ton.

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.

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