Historic wildfires are burning millions of acres and destroying homes in California, Oregon and Washington state, as officials brace for more fatalities and evacuations.
The fires have killed at least 33 people across the states and dozens more are missing. More than 1 million acres of land in Oregon have been burned and at least 10% of the state’s population is in evacuation zones. The state has dealt with the worst destruction as blazes have already decimated two towns.
In Oregon, more than 40,000 people have fled their homes and many are still missing, according to Gov. Kate Brown. The state is preparing for a “mass fatality event” and expects to see high winds on Sunday that will make fighting the fires more difficult.
The fires have inundated the Western states with smoke and have made the air quality in some cities among the worst in the world.
Portland, Oregon currently has the worst air quality globally from the fires, with the city of Seattle ranking third, San Francisco fourth and Los Angeles tenth. Health officials recommend people in areas with poor air quality limit time outdoors, keep windows shut and have air conditioners running on recirculation in order to avoid drawing air inside.
Authorities said a man has been arrested and charged with arson in connection with a fire in southern Oregon that has burned hundreds of homes. Oregon’s state fire marshal Jim Walker, who has served since 2014, has resigned after being placed on administrative leave on Saturday afternoon, according to the state police department. The police department said it was “conducting an internal personnel investigation.”
In California, more than 3 million acres have burned, a record in the state’s history. The August Complex that started from a series of lightning strikes last month has become the biggest wildfire ever in California.
The weather in California could potentially improve with forecasts of less wind and some rainfall. However, the National Weather Service on Saturday issued a red flag warning in parts of Oregon and Northern California over the weekend, citing gusty winds and low humidity that could worsen the blazes.
Gov. Gavin Newsom of California gave a bleak update on the situation on Friday afternoon, saying the worst forecasts of climate change has impacted his state. He vowed to direct his administration to speed up California’s environmental goals and invest more in green energy.
“California, folks, is America fast forward,” Newsom said during a press conference at the Lake Oroville State Recreation Area in Butte County, which is damaged from the North Complex Fire. “What we’re experiencing right here is coming to communities all across the United States of America unless we get our act together on climate change.”
President Donald Trump, who issued a major disaster declaration in August, will visit California on Monday where he will join local and federal fire and emergency officials to be briefed on the fires. The president is set to visit McClellan Park in Sacramento County, where the state’s fire agency Cal Fire has based its operations.
Trump for weeks has remained silent about the worsening fires and blamed the state of California in August for not managing its forests. The president has previously questioned human-caused climate change, as well as pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accords and dismantled a slew of major climate and environmental policies.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said the president continues to closely monitor the states impacted by the fires and provide federal assistance.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Sunday said that the state needs much more assistance from the Trump administration to fight the fires and condemned the president for his claims that the fires are a result of poor forest management.
“I listen to fire professionals, not the president of the United States or politicians when it comes to what actually causes these fires. It’s been very clear that years of drought, whether it’s too much water and too much rain in parts of our country right now, or too little,” Garcetti said on CNN.
“This is climate change and this is an administration that’s put its head in the sand,” Garcetti said. “Talk to a firefighter if you think climate change isn’t real.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the amount of land burned by the fires in just the past five days amounts to the state’s second-worst fire season following the season in 2015, and said the fires should be called climate fires, not wildfires. Fires in the state destroyed most of the homes in the town of Malden and killed a 1-year-old boy.
Climate change has triggered excessive heat and drought conditions across the world that exacerbate wildfires. In fire-prone California, six of the 20 biggest wildfires in state history have occurred this year.
Gov. Inslee and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley on Sunday told ABC News that conditions in their states were “apocalyptic” and thousands of people have lost their homes in the fires.
“It is apocalyptic … I could never have envisioned this. The east winds came over the top of the mountain, proceeded to turn the fires into blow torches that went down and just incinerated a series of small towns,” Merkley said. “You have community after community with fairgrounds full of people, of refugees from the fires.”
Inslee said it’s “maddening” that Trump denies climate change is fueling the fires: “The only moisture in eastern Washington was the tears of people who have lost their homes … and no——w we have a blow torch over our states in the West, which is climate change.”
“If this is not a signal to the U.S., I don’t know what it will take,” Inslee said. “These people whose homes were destroyed … they deserve action against climate change.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday said that the state is sending roughly 190 additional firefighters and 50 more trucks to California. Fire crews are also being sent in from Utah and Colorado.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said the fires demonstrate that climate change poses an “existential threat to our way of life.”
“Our thoughts are also with the millions of Americans living just outside the path of these fires, forced into an awful choice between relocating in the midst of an ongoing pandemic or staying put in a place where every breath they draw forces them to inhale smoke,” Biden said in a statement on Saturday.
“The science is clear, and deadly signs like these are unmistakable — climate change poses an imminent, existential threat to our way of life,” Biden said. “President Trump can try to deny that reality, but the facts are undeniable.”