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'I Heard Popping And Houses Blowing Up': Deadly Wildfires Rage On West Coast

Firefighters watch as flames tower over their truck Wednesday at the Bear Fire in Oroville, Calif. The 2020 fire season is off to a staggering start, far outpacing last year.
Josh Edelson
AFP via Getty Images
Firefighters watch as flames tower over their truck Wednesday at the Bear Fire in Oroville, Calif. The 2020 fire season is off to a staggering start, far outpacing last year.

Updated at 10:27 p.m. ET

Intense wildfires are ravaging large swaths of the West Coast, prompting thousands of people to flee parts of Oregon and forcing power outages in California, where fires have already burned a record of more than 2.3 million acres this year. Fires are burning from Washington state to Southern California.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said on Wednesday afternoon that 35 fires are burning more than 300,000 acres across the state, and even places that are not currently burning face the worst fire conditions in three decades.

"Our number-one priority right now is saving lives," Brown said. "This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfires in our state's history."

The Marion County Sheriff's Office has confirmed two deaths linked to the wildfires.

The Salem Statesman Journal reports that the victims were a 13-year-old boy and his 71-year-old grandmother. The boy's mother survived but was hospitalized in critical condition.

Brown said that several towns — Detroit, Blue River, Vida, Phoenix and Talent — are "substantially destroyed." Hundreds of homes were lost, she added.

And in Washington state on Wednesday, the commissioner of public lands said that a small child had died in the Cold Springs Fire. According to KXLY-TV, the 1-year-old was killed as his family tried to flee from the fire.

The Cold Springs Fire has burned more than 163,000 acres since Sunday evening, prompting mass evacuations and road closures.

In southern Oregon, people in parts of Medford, Talent and nearby communities were ordered to evacuate the area immediately Tuesday, with officials citing the imminent threat of fast-moving fires. The entire town of Phoenix — which has several thousand people — was told to leave.

"I heard popping and houses blowing up and on fire," Bear Creek Mobile Home Park resident Edward Hancock said as he described the scene just outside Ashland to reporter April Ehrlich of Jefferson Public Radio. Hancock and several neighbors eventually made it to a temporary evacuation center at the county fairgrounds.

Ehrlich, who lives in Talent, said she fled her house and went to a friend's place in Medford – only to have that area also fall under evacuation orders. Early Wednesday, she said via Twitter that "there's a good chance my house is gone."

Deputies in Clackamas County, southeast of Portland, spent the night going door to door to make sure residents knew they had to get out, the county sheriff's office said. One fire in the area was sparked "when an RV pulling a Jeep south was emitting sparks and caught fire. The RV pulled over and it started the brush fire," the sheriff's office said.

Across the region, 15 new large wildfires were reported on Monday alone, the National Interagency Fire Center said. That makes at least 87 large fires, which have burned more than 2.7 million acres. Even in places where flames haven't reached, massive amounts of smoke have filled the sky, making it difficult to breathe.

"Foresters and meteorologists say they're seeing unprecedented fire behavior, with blazes traveling dozens of miles in just hours," Raquel Maria Dillon of NPR member station KQED reported.

"Near Big Sur, flames jumped a containment line and overtook more than a dozen firefighters Tuesday," Dillon said. "One is in critical condition. On the other side of the state in the Sierra Nevada, military helicopters rescued hundreds of backpackers and campers."

A community of forest homes lies in ruins Tuesday in the Meadow Lakes area after the Creek Fire swept through near Shaver Lake, Calif.
David McNew / Getty Images
Getty Images
A community of forest homes lies in ruins Tuesday in the Meadow Lakes area after the Creek Fire swept through near Shaver Lake, Calif.

The 2020 fire season is off to a staggering start, far outpacing last year. By the end of the first week of September 2019, California had seen fewer than 5,000 fires, which burned nearly 118,000 acres. By the same point this year, the state recorded more than 7,600 fires and roughly 2.3 million acres burned, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.

The fires have been stoked by a recent heat wave and propelled by strong winds. In many places, even a small blaze can find plentiful fuel — dry timber, grass and brush — officials said, pleading with people to avoid any activities that could create a spark or flame.

A blast of cold air may reduce the risks in some inland areas, but along the coast, it's adding to the problems.

"Strong winds on the western side of the winter storm have brought dangerous and life-threatening fire weather conditions to large portions of [the] western U.S.," the National Weather Service said, "from the desert Southwest, through the Great Basin, much of California into the Pacific Northwest."

The dangerous winds could start to diminish across the coastal area by Thursday, the weather service said.

A critical or elevated fire weather threat persists in many of those places, with red flag warnings along most of the Western coastline and nearby areas on Wednesday.

Smoke from the fires caused eerie orange and hazy skies in San Francisco, the Bay Area and nearby regions Wednesday morning, repeating scenes that have been recorded as far north as Bellingham, Wash., earlier this week.

Many of the largest fires are burning along the Cascade mountain range or, further south, along the Sierra Nevada mountains. But smoke from those fires is now shrouding communities along the coast in haze, as wind patterns funnel the smoke to the west and south.

"There's an elongated low pressure system along the West Coast driving this," the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says.

For weeks, parts of the Inland Northwest have been seeing consistently smoky skies. But thanks to the shift in the winds, many of those regions are now seeing blue skies.

"An amazing sight after at least a month of near steady dense smoke and haze," NPR's Kirk Siegler said, posting an image of the sky in Boise, Idaho, Tuesday.

Pacific Gas & Electric has shut off power in parts of Northern and central California in hopes of reducing the chance that its power lines could trigger a wildfire.

"PG&E's shutoffs have affected 170,000 homes and businesses from California wine country to the Sierra Nevada mountains," KQED's Lily Jamali reported.

Such extreme measures are a last resort, the utility said.

"PG&E set up 50 community resource centers for customers, especially those needing power for medical equipment," Jamali said. "But the utility has shut down three of them so far because of the fires ravaging the state."

The U.S. Forest Service has closed campgrounds in all national forests in California, citing the deadly risks of "extreme fire behavior" and firefighting resources that are already stretched thin.

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Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer, reporter and editor, and a leader on NPR's flagship digital news team. He has frequently contributed to NPR's audio and social media platforms, including hosting dozens of live shows online.
Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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