Wildfires Live Updates: Dry Lightning Could Threaten Western Oregon

Published In New York Times

Firefighters were making progress against several significant wildfires in California and Oregon, hopeful that changing weather conditions would help rather than hinder efforts.

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Wildfires continue to devastate California and Oregon with vast amounts of thick smoke polluting the air.CreditCredit…Eric Thayer for The New York Times

There were four billion-dollar weather disasters in the United States last month, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said on Thursday: the derecho storm that hit the Midwest, Hurricanes Isaias and Laura, and California’s wildfires.

While that is not a record for financial damage in a single month, it highlights the growing cost of climate change in the country. The most billion-dollar disasters in a month, five, occurred in April 2011, NOAA officials said, and were related to storms and tornadoes.

A hotter planet makes strong wildfires more likely in areas that tend to be dry because heat further dries the fuels in a forest. And because warmer air can hold more moisture in areas that tend to be wet, hurricanes and other storms can hold more water and produce serious flooding.

This month, a report commissioned by federal regulators concluded that climate change posed a growing threat to United States financial markets, as the costs of wildfires, storms, droughts and floods spread through insurance and mortgage markets, pension funds and other financial institutions.

“A world wracked by frequent and devastating shocks from climate change cannot sustain the fundamental conditions supporting our financial system,” the report said. That study, focused on the economic impacts of climate disasters, did not specifically address the human toll of climate disasters. The wildfires in the West have killed at least 30 people. Smoke is known to cause health problems far beyond fire zones.

NOAA holds a climate forecast briefing each month, but Thursday’s had special resonance because it came with fires still burning in the West and in the aftermath of Hurricane Sally.

The agency said that 2020 was not likely to be the warmest year on record, but that there was a 95 percent probability it would be among the three warmest years. NOAA also predicted that almost the entire United States, with the exception of a small part of Alaska, would be warmer than the historical average throughout the fall, and that the drought currently hitting the Southwest could spread slightly.

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Firefighters were making progress against several significant wildfires on Thursday, the authorities in Oregon and California said, and residents of the Bay Area were able to enjoy smoke-free skies for the first time in weeks.

A storm arriving Thursday night will help to improve air quality in western Oregon and bring moisture “exactly where I would ask for it,” Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said in a news briefing.

But the storm may also bring additional challenges, including winds that could accelerate the growth of existing fires, and lightning that could ignite new ones. The rain could cause landslides, and flash flooding was a worry in the scorched foothills of the Cascades.

Temperatures should remain low with more humidity after the storm, Mr. Grafe said, aiding the significant progress crews have already made. Oregon’s 10 remaining large blazes, including the Beachie Creek Fire, which has burned nearly 200,000 acres east of Salem and forced tens of thousands to evacuate, are mostly between 10 to 20 percent contained.

Firefighters had managed to slow, stall or diminish some of the major fires in California, Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the state fire agency, Cal Fire, said. The August Complex, which has burned almost 800,000 acres north of Sacramento, was 30 percent contained, and the North Complex Fire, stretching 228,000 acres, was 36 percent contained.

Emergency teams continued to search for victims and survivors of the fires, which have killed more than 30 people, destroyed thousands of structures and burned across more than five million acres in three states.

More than 3,000 Oregonians are still being sheltered outside their homes. When Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon visited some of the communities devastated by the Beachie Creek Fire, she said the devastation it wrought was “all-encompassing and shocking.”

The authorities in Western states, still locked in a grueling battle to contain fast-moving fires, struggled to tamp down waves of false rumors and misinformation that have created confusion and fear in communities directly threatened by the flames.

South of Portland, Ore., where the Beachie Creek fire is burning, county leaders pleaded with the public to trust them — about the dangers of fires and their efforts to track down each and every tip.

“I want the public to completely understand that our office has no intelligence or information about any group committing any crimes,” Sheriff Craig Roberts of Clackamas County, Ore., said in a news conference Wednesday evening. “No arrests have been made associated with any group.”

He said that efforts to trace tips often led to rumors started by “a friend of a friend,” sources that detectives could not validate, or passing observations that were spun into wild conspiracies online. In one instance, he said, two people helping evacuees noticed an abandoned gasoline can, and moved it to a safe place away from the fire. Someone called in their activity to the police, who investigated and found “they were trying to do just a good deed.”

He added, emphatically, that there was no evidence linking the fires to anti-fascists or any other group. Deputies had made arrests, he said, mostly of people “taking advantage of citizens in really a difficult time.”

In neighboring Multnomah County, the Sheriff’s Office announced on Thursday night that it had issued criminal citations against three people after a driver reported being followed and blocked by three vehicles in what the department described as a “civilian traffic stop.” The three people were charged with disorderly conduct in the second degree.

In recent days, there were also reports of armed citizens stopping people at gunpoint because of fears of looting.

“We encourage people to call the Sheriff’s Office to report suspicious activity, and to not take action on their own,” Sheriff Mike Reese said in a statement.

Officials in California urged people to trust information vetted by the authorities and credible news organizations, and not to spread rumors or jump to conclusions based on details overheard online or police scanners.

The renewed effort to stanch misinformation — coming almost a week after the F.B.I. warned the public about how conspiracy theories sapped precious resources — cast a shadow over progress made against the wildfires themselves.

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People gathered at a boat dock in Detroit, Ore., in hopes of escaping by helicopter.CreditCredit…Laura Harris

They were trapped. As walls of fire and smoke encircled their town and blocked the roads, the last people in Detroit, Ore., trickled onto a boat launch beside a half-drained reservoir — residents and vacationers, barefoot children in pajamas, exhausted firefighters. There were two people on bikes. One man rode up on a powerboat.

Seven miles to the west, one path to safety out of the mountains along Highway 22 was blocked by flaming trees and boulders as the largest of 30 wildfires consuming Oregon raced through the canyons. Thirteen miles to the east, the other way out of town was covered with the wreckage of another seething blaze.

So as a black dawn broke one morning last week, the 80 people trapped in the lakeside vacation town on the evergreen slopes of the Cascades huddled together in a blizzard of ash, waiting for a rescue by air.

Jane James sprawled out on the pavement with her two dogs. Greg Sheppard, a former wildland firefighter, borrowed a phone to call his wife. Some people prayed. Others cried. The children, brushing off the threat, ate Oreos and played in the parking lot.

Firefighters assigned each person a number that would determine who would get on the first helicopter dispatched by the National Guard. They spoke with a matter-of-fact calm, even as some privately began to fear the worst and tried to get messages of love to their families.

Roberto DelaMontaigne, a 25-year-old volunteer firefighter, shoved his personal worries aside as he cleared away bushes to create a fire break. Laura Harris, a volunteer firefighter working alongside her husband, wondered to herself: If the helicopters cannot get in, what would their daughter’s life be as an orphan?

Through the din of wind and rattling trees, the crews could occasionally hear the whirring blades of a helicopter above. On the edge of a makeshift landing circle, with strobe lights to guide choppers in, they continued working by hacking down trees. Then the news arrived over their radios: The helicopters could not land.

Nobody was coming to their rescue.

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For decades, George Atiyeh fought to keep out the U.S. Forest Service, which was intent on logging the old-growth forest near his home at the foot of the Cascades in western Oregon. Years of activism, civil disobedience and legal battles made him a local icon and elevated his plight to national attention, eventually leading to the creation of a protected wilderness area.

Now Mr. Atiyeh, 72, is missing, after a fire ravaged the forest east of Salem and burned his home to the ground. His daughter, Aniese Mitchell, wrote on Facebook on Sept. 11 that his home and property were “a total loss,” and that his truck had been found in his driveway.

Mr. Atiyeh, a miner and logger turned environmentalist, is the only person still unaccounted for in the Beachie Creek Fire, which has killed four people, destroyed 470 homes and burned 200,000 acres through much of the forest Mr. Atiyeh fought to protect.

In the 1980s, the U.S. Forest Service had set out to log an area around Opal Creek, a primeval rainforest at the base of the Cascades with waterfalls, crystalline creeks and trees that are hundreds of years old. Mr. Atiyeh had spent time in that forest since he was a child, and it had a profound impact on him.

“My motivation for everything was to save this forest and this stream,” Mr. Atiyeh told The Statesman Journal, of Salem, for a series on the history of Opal Creek in 2016. “I was obsessed, and I would do anything it took.”

Mr. Atiyeh was the caretaker of Jawbone Flats, a small mining community in the forest that was founded by his great-uncle and then sold to Thurston Twigg-Smith, a newspaper owner from Hawaii.

The two conspired to use mining claims to the area to block the U.S. Forest Service from being able to log there. Mr. Atiyeh also used other, less formal tactics.

“I did things that were less than legal — I was willing to do anything,” Mr. Atiyeh told The Statesman Journal. “My life wasn’t so important compared to this place, this forest.”

After a 20-year battle, in 1996, the efforts of Mr. Atiyeh and other environmentalists paid off: The Opal Creek Wilderness and Scenic Recreation Areas were created, protecting 34,000 acres of wilderness.

Two inmates who were among the 2,750 transported between prisons as fires threatened correctional facilities in Oregon have tested positive for coronavirus, the authorities said.

The dilemma prison officials faced during the evacuations this month was complex, as they grappled with managing large facilities through simultaneous dangers. There were fears that in saving inmates from the fires, they would trigger a new outbreak of the virus. There have been more than 200,000 coronavirus infections in American prisons and jails and nearly 1,200 deaths since the pandemic began.

So far the positive tests are limited to a female inmate from the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility and a male from the Coffee Creek Intake Center who were both among those evacuated to the Deer Ridge Correctional Institute, more than 100 miles to the southeast.

The male inmate was tested for the virus when he was at the 10-day mark of a 14-day observation period. The woman had been tested as part of her “release planning” for later in the month. Both were asymptomatic, said Jennifer Black, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Corrections.

At Deer Ridge, an overcrowded state prison, inmates slept shoulder-to-shoulder in cots, and in some cases on the floor — food was in short supply, showers and toilets few — conditions that are optimal for the dangerous spread of coronavirus, experts say.

Tara Herivel, a lawyer for one of the inmates moved to Deer Ridge, said that the evacuations were conducted without proper pandemic safety precautions, which had “exponentially increased to date the amount of people who would be exposed.”

The return for all Coffee Creek inmates back to their home facility is being accelerated because of the positive coronavirus tests, Ms. Black said, and contact tracing, symptom checks and quarantining are being conducted as necessary.

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Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

The fast-moving fires that swept through the West have wiped out critical populations of endangered species and incinerated native habitats that may take years to recover, if they recover at all.

Fire is a critical part of ecosystems in the West, and many plants and animals depend on it to thrive, but the heat and intensity of the wildfires now ravaging California, Oregon, Washington and other Western states are so destructive that wildlife in some areas may struggle to recover.

“Some of these places we set aside may be fundamentally impacted by climate change and may not be able to come back,” said Amy Windrope, deputy director of Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. “That’s just a reality.”

Wildlife officials all over the West are grappling with how to respond now that the existence of habitats set aside for threatened species appear to be imperiled by megafires made worse by climate change.

“We now have to think about climate change when managing wildlife,” said Davia Palmeri, policy coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Fire that raced through the sagebrush steppe country of central Washington this month destroyed several state wildlife areas, leaving little more than bare ground. The flames killed about half of the state’s endangered population of pygmy rabbits, leaving only about 50 of the palm-sized rabbits in the wild there.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” Ms. Windrope said. “We have very little sage brush habitat left for them, and it will take decades for this land to recover.”

The fires also destroyed critical breeding grounds for endangered sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse, and officials estimate the fast-moving flames may have wiped out 30 to 70 percent of the birds. The survivors are left without the critical brush cover they need to raise young.

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Thousands of American have been affected by the wildfires in the West, and there are many ways to help.

The California Fire Foundation has several relief funds to support communities hit by the fires, and organizations in Oregon are providing housing and meals.

But there is often an increase in fraudulent activity after disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes, and there are ways to research local charities before you donate to them. One option is to search the Internal Revenue Service’s database to check that it is eligible to receive tax-deductible donations. Sites like Charity Navigator and Guidestar are also helpful.

If you suspect that an organization or person may be committing fraud, you can report it to the National Center for Disaster Fraud.

Reporting was contributed by Mike Baker, Christine Hauser, Jack Healy, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Dave Philipps, John Schwartz, Lucy Tompkins and Alan Yuhas.