The National Weather Service said wildfires burning across Northern California caused unprecedented smoke clouds.
SHAVER LAKE, Calif. — Wildfires driven by strong winds were racing through more than a dozen Western states Thursday, taking lives and scarring a swath of land almost as big as Connecticut.
At least seven people have died as more than 90 major fires burn through 13 Western states.
“Firefighters across the Western states are seeing extreme fire behavior,” the National Fire Information Center. Three deaths have been reported in California, three in Oregon and one in Washington state.
In Northern California’s Butte County, Sheriff Kory Honea said at least three people have died, 12 are missing, and hundreds of homes are feared destroyed by the North Complex Fire above San Francisco. Thousands more homes were threatened.
Several people have been critically burned and 20,000 people were under evacuation orders or warnings in Plumas, Yuba and Butte counties. Thick smoke completely blocked sunlight in some large areas, and distant flames turned the sky orange in others.
“Time and time again we have seen how dangerous wildfires can be. … So I ask that you please, please please be prepared, maintain situational awareness and heed the warnings,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea pleaded.
John Sykes, a 50-year resident, managed to flee with his car and some clothes, but he watched the town burn from about a mile away.
“The school is gone, the fire department’s gone, the bar’s gone, the laundromat’s gone, the general store’s gone,” Sykes told the Sacramento Bee, adding, “I’ll never go back. … I never want to see California again.”
The fire also threatened Paradise, a town devastated in 2018 by the deadliest blaze in state history. More than 80 residents died and almost 20,000 buildings were destroyed in that fire.
In the Sierra National Forest, authorities say it will likely be at least a week, and possibly as long as a month, before the Creek Fire is controlled enough to permit residents to return. The fire has displaced tens of thousands of Californians, and the Red Cross has already helped more than 600 people with hotel rooms since group shelters are prohibited during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
Fire officials have not yet released detailed maps of the fire damage but say at least 60 homes and 278 commercial-residential structures were destroyed. Rocky Alec, 22, and Kristen Kipp, 21, decided to abandon their trailer home near Mammoth.
“You couldn’t really see anything. There was smoke everywhere. We were in too much smoke to see flames,” Alec said. “At first we were like it was just another fire. Then it got real.”
In Southern California, fires burned in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. But severe Santa Ana winds forecast for the area were weaker than predicted.
“We’re encouraged that the wind activity appears to be dying down,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said. “The rest of the week looks a little more favorable.”
Several weeks of fire season remain across a region plagued by high heat and parched terrain. California has already set a record with nearly 2.3 million acres burned this year. Oregon and Washington state also have struggled with historic blazes.
Wind-driven fires were also blazing in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
In Oregon, a series of fires killed three people and forced residents to flee flames, smoke and destruction. Gov. Kate Brown said hundreds of residences have been destroyed.
“This could be the greatest loss of human life and property due to wildfire in our state’s history,” Brown said.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee placed the blame squarely on climate change and promised “steps to defeat” the impact of global warming.
“We are not going to surrender the future of this state to climate change,” he said. “We are stronger, smarter and more resilient than that.” And I’ll be thinking of these fires and the communities they’re impacting when we take our next steps to defeat climate change.
Bacon reported from Arlington, Va. Contributing: The Associated Press
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