California wine country fire quadruples in size, more evacuations ordered

By Adrees Latif and Jonathan Allen

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (Reuters) – A wildfire in northern California’s Napa Valley wine country more than quadrupled in size overnight to some 11,000 acres (4,450 hectares), burning homes and vineyards and forcing officials to order thousands of residents to evacuate on Monday.

As the small city of Santa Rosa emptied out around him, Jas Sihota stationed himself on his front porch with his garden hose close at hand, darting out every 15 minutes or so to douse spot fires around neighboring houses seeded by wind-blown embers under a hazy red sun.

Sihota, a radiology technician at a nearby hospital, had not slept in some 24 hours since the blaze, since named the Glass Fire, ignited on Sunday morning near Calistoga about 60 miles (96.5 km) north of San Francisco.

“I wouldn’t have a house if I didn’t stay,” said Sihota, adding that neither would some of his neighbors. At least 10 homes elsewhere on the street beyond the reach of his hose were destroyed.

He weighed when he might finally grab some sleep, wondering if he could stay up perhaps another six hours on adrenaline. “I’m not going to do it till I feel comfortable,” he said.

It was the latest inferno in a historically destructive year throughout the U.S. West. In California alone, wildfires so far have scorched more than 3.7 million acres, far exceeding any single year in state history.

Since Aug. 15, fires in the state have killed 26 people and destroyed more than 7,000 structures. Climate change has contributed to wildfires’ growing intensity, scientists say.

Early on Monday, new evacuation orders were issued in Sonoma and Napa counties, including parts of the cities of Santa Rosa and St. Helena.

Residents at Oakmont Gardens, a retirement community in Santa Rosa, leaned on walkers as they waited to board a bus taking them to safety, their face masks doubling as protection against smoke and the novel coronavirus.

More than a thousand firefighters are battling the Glass Fire, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), some in planes that trailed red plumes of fire retardant over the region’s famed vineyards. None of it had been contained as of Monday morning, said Cal Fire, which was also monitoring 26 other major wildfires in the state.

The National Weather Service has issued a Red Flag Warning through to the end of Monday, forecasting low humidity and gusts of wind up to 55 miles per hour (89 km per hour) through certain canyons. The fire also prompted evacuation of the 151-bed Adventist Health St. Helena hospital on Sunday for a second time in recent weeks after lightning-sparked blazes swept through the area in August.

(Reporting by Adrees Latif in Santa Rosa and Jonathan Allen in New York; Additional reporting by Stephen Lam in Santa Rosa and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by David Gregorio and Bill Berkrot)

California wine country wildfire forces evacuation of hospital, hundreds of homes

By Stephen Lam and Steve Gorman

ST. HELENA, Calif. (Reuters) – A wind-driven wildfire erupted on Sunday in the heart of northern California’s Napa Valley wine country to spread across nearly 2,000 acres (809 hectares), forcing the evacuation of a hospital and hundreds of homes, authorities said.

Fire crews were out in force, scrambling to fend off flames threatening neighborhoods and vineyards at the northern end of the famed wine-growing valley and surrounding hillsides, about 75 miles (120 km) north of San Francisco.

The blaze, dubbed the Glass Fire, broke out before dawn near Calistoga and raced toward the adjacent communities of Deer Park and St. Helena, with flames reaching within a mile of the Adventist Health St. Helena hospital.

All 55 patients there at the time were safely evacuated by ambulance and helicopter over the course of five hours from about 7 a.m., hospital spokeswoman Linda Williams told Reuters.

“We had ambulances lined up from all over the Bay area,” she said, adding that although smoke shrouded the facility, the skies above were clear enough for helicopters’ airlift efforts.

It was the second wildfire-related evacuation of the 151-bed hospital in a month, after a massive cluster of lightning-sparked blazes that swept several counties north of the San Francisco Bay region in August.

Authorities ordered about 600 homes evacuated on Sunday, with residents of 1,400 more warned to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice, said Tyree Zander, a spokesman for the state’s forestry and fire protection department (CalFire). The notices affected at least 5,000 people, he added.

By evening, flames stoked by winds gusting up to 50 mph (80 kph) had scorched about 1,800 acres (728 hectares) of grassy rolling hillsides and oak woodlands, with little or no containment, Zander said.

FIRE AT HARVEST TIME

The cause of the fire is being investigated. There were no immediate reports of injuries, but a Reuters photographer in St. Helena saw some structures that had been burned.

The blaze erupted midway through the traditional grape-harvesting period in the Napa Valley, world renowned as one of California’s premiere wine-producing regions. The area’s 475 wineries account for just 4% of the state’s total annual grape harvest but half of the retail value of all California wines sold, according to the Napa Valley Vintners trade group.

Of Napa’s 16 wine-growing districts, or sub-appellations, the Howell Mountain area may have faced the greatest threat, said Lisa Covey, a spokeswoman for Hall Family Wines, which kept open during the day all its three tasting rooms in the county.

Napa and other wine-growing regions have been hit by wildfires in and around the Bay area for several years. Susan Krausz, co-owner of Arkenstone Estate Vineyards in the Howell Mountain community of Angwin, said it would take days or weeks to assess the impact of the latest blaze on valley vintners.

“Most people have harvested,” she said, but added, “Any time’s a bad time for a fire.”

Tom Kaljian, 78, a realtor who owns a house about halfway between Calistoga and St. Helena, defied evacuation orders to spend the day with his wife hosing down their home and dry brush along a fence line separating their property from the Silverado Trail, a key north-south roadway.

“We were told to get out of here, but I was trying to protect our little abode, so we stayed,” he told Reuters by telephone.

After firefighters told him the house was no longer in danger, he added, “I stopped watering at that point, and came in and took a nap.”

The Glass Fire came as the Pacific Gas and Electric Company said it was temporarily halting power to transmission lines in parts of 16 counties across northern and central California to guard against greater wildfire risks in hot, windy, dry weather.

The public safety power shutoffs were expected to affect about 65,000 regional homes and businesses, said PG&E, the state’s largest electric utility.

A red flag warning for extreme wildfire risks for Napa Valley would run through Monday morning, Zander said.

CalFire said a fire weather watch would start on Monday across much of Southern California, following the forecast return of hot, gusty Santa Ana winds and low humidity.

California wildfires have scorched more than 3.7 million acres in the first nine months of 2020, far exceeding any single year in state history, killing 26 people and destroying more than 7,000 structures.

(Reporting by Stephen Lam in St. Helena; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Clarence Fernandez)

Crews make headway against massive California wildfire

By Mimi Dwyer

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Firefighters notched a victory in their battle to beat back a massive blaze raging outside Los Angeles, more than doubling containment in the past 24 hours, the U.S. Forest Service said on Wednesday.

The Bobcat Fire, which has been burning in the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles since Sept. 6, was 38% contained as of Wednesday morning, John Clearwater, USFS spokesperson for Angeles National Forest, said in an email update.

The fire has so far burned more than 113,000 acres but remained relatively stable overnight. The flames were 17% contained on Tuesday.

The Bobcat Fire, one of the largest and most dangerous fires in recorded Los Angeles history, is just one element stoking the worst fire season California has seen to date.

For more than a week it has threatened to overtake the Mount Wilson Observatory, a California landmark and beloved historical site that was home to major astronomical advancements in the early 20th century.

Some 1,556 firefighters are currently deployed to combat it, the Forest Service said.

Wildfires have ravaged the West Coast this summer and pushed firefighters to their limits. At least 26 people have died in fires across California since August 15, including three firefighters, according to the state agency CAL FIRE.

One of those firefighters died as a result of a fire sparked by a botched gender reveal party.

Roughly 3.4 million acres have burned across California during the same period.

Another 10 people have died and approximately 2 million acres have burned in fires in Washington and Oregon.

California has seen five of its largest fires on record in this wildfire season alone. Outside Los Angeles, the momentary reprieve could dissipate by the weekend, when weather was expected to grow warmer and drier, and forecasts showed the possibility of gusty winds, the Forest Service said.

(Reporting by Mimi Dwyer; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and David Gregorio)

California vows to ban sale of new gasoline-powered passenger vehicles in 2035

By David Shepardson and Nichola Groom

WASHINGTON/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California plans to ban the sale of new gasoline powered passenger cars and trucks starting in 2035 in a dramatic move to shift to electric vehicles and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Governor Gavin Newsom said on Wednesday.

Newsom told a press conference the state was committing to a “firm goal” to phase out the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035 and was encouraging other states to take similar action.

Newsom’s order labeled the elimination of gasoline-powered vehicles a “goal” and a “target” after his office said earlier his order would require the sale of nothing but zero emission passenger vehicle starting in 2035.

The move would be the most significant to date by a U.S. state aimed at ending the use of internal combustion engines for passenger travel.

California is the largest U.S. auto market, accounting for about 11% of all U.S. vehicle sales, and many states choose to adopt its green vehicle mandates.

Newsom also wants the state legislature to stop issuing new permits by 2024 allowing use of hydraulic fracturing technology for oil and gas drilling.

U.S. President Donald Trump has sought to bar California from requiring the sale of electric vehicles, while his rival Joe Biden has pledged to spend billions to speed the adoption of electric vehicles.

California said it was joining 15 countries that have made similar pledges, including Britain.

California’s clean vehicle goals have not always come to pass and in some cases have been pushed back.

Newsom said the California Air Resources Board (CARB) will develop regulations to mandate that 100% of in-state sales of new passenger cars and trucks are zero-emission by 2035, which would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 35%. The board also plans to mandate by 2045 that all operations of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles be zero emission where feasible.

Newsom’s executive order does not prevent Californians from owning gasoline-powered cars or selling them on the used car market.

In response to a record wildfire season in the state, Newsom earlier this month said California needed to “fast track” its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change. “Across the entire spectrum, our goals are inadequate to the reality we are experiencing,” he said on Sept. 11 while touring a burned area in the state.

A group representing major automakers including General Motors Co, Toyota Motor Corp and Volkswagen AG said “neither mandates nor bans build successful markets.”

The group noted electrified vehicles account for less than 10% of new vehicle sales in California, which is still best in the United States.

California and nearly two dozen other U.S. states have sued the Trump administration, which has rolled back Obama era vehicle emissions standards and sought to undo California’s authority to set strict car pollution rules.

The administration has been waging a multi-pronged battle to counter California’s efforts to fight climate change by reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses from vehicles.

(Reporting by David Shepardson and Nichola Groom; Editing by David Gregorio and Tom Brown)

U.S. surpasses grim milestone of 200,000 COVID-19 deaths

By Sangameswaran S

(Reuters) – The death toll from the spread of the coronavirus in the United States exceeded 200,000 on Tuesday, by the far the highest number of any nation.

The United States, on a weekly average, is now losing about 800 lives each day to the virus, according to a Reuters tally. That is down from a peak of 2,806 daily deaths recorded on April 15.

During the early months of the pandemic, 200,000 deaths was regarded by many as the maximum number of lives likely to be lost in the United States to the virus.

The University of Washington’s health institute is forecasting coronavirus fatalities reaching 378,000 by the end of 2020, with the daily death toll skyrocketing to 3,000 per day in December.

Over 70% of those in the United States who have lost their lives to the virus were over the age of 65, according to CDC data.

The southern states of Texas and Florida contributed the most deaths in the United States in the past two weeks and were closely followed by California.

California, Texas and Florida – the three most populous U.S. states – have recorded the most coronavirus infections and have long surpassed the state of New York, which was the epicenter of the outbreak in early 2020. The country as a whole is reporting over 42,000 new infections on average each day and saw cases last week rise on a weekly basis after falling for eight weeks in a row.

Deaths rose 5% last week after falling for four weeks in a row, according to a Reuters analysis.

Six out of every 10,000 residents in the United States has died of the virus, according to Reuters data, one of the highest rates among developed nations.

Brazil follows the United States in the number of overall deaths due to the virus, with over 137,000 fatalities. India has had the world’s highest daily death rate over the last week with total deaths now approaching 100,000.

(Reporting by Sangameswaran S in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Rosalba O’Brien)

California firefighters race to subdue flames before heat and winds return

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Five weeks after California erupted in deadly wildfires supercharged by record heat and howling winds, crews battling flames pushed on Monday to consolidate their gains as forecasts called for a return of blistering, gusty weather.

California already has lost far more landscape to wildfires this summer than during any previous entire year, with scores of conflagrations – many sparked by catastrophic lightning storms – scorching some 3.4 million acres since mid-August.

The previous record was just under 2 million acres burned in 2018.

As of Monday, more than 19,000 firefighters continued to wage war on 27 major blazes across the state, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).

The fires, stoked by extreme weather conditions that scientists have pointed to as signs of climate change, have destroyed an estimated 6,100 homes and other structures and killed 26 people, three of them firefighters, CalFire reported.

Another 2 million acres have gone up in flames in Oregon and Washington state during an overlapping outbreak of wildfires that started earlier this month, destroying more than 4,400 structures in all and claiming 10 lives.

But a weekend of intermittently heavy showers across the western Cascade mountain range helped fire crews in the Pacific Northwest tamp down blazes in those two states.

Although California has seen little or no rain in recent days, bouts of extreme heat and gale-force winds that had produced incendiary conditions for weeks have given way to lower temperatures and lighter breezes, enabling firefighters to gain ground around most fires.

“They’re going to take advantage of this cool weather while they can,” CalFire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff told Reuters.

The break in the weather is not expected to last much longer. Tolmachoff said forecasts call for rising temperatures, lower humidity and a return of strong, erratic winds around mid-week in Southern California and by the weekend across the state’s northern half.

BOBCAT FIRE PROVES STUBBORN

Some fires have proven more stubborn than others. One in particular, dubbed the Bobcat Fire, grew to more than 100,000 acres on Monday in the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles, with containment levels achieved by firefighters holding steady at just 15%, CalFire said.

The Bobcat last week spread perilously close to a famed astronomical observatory and complex of vital communications towers at the summit of Mount Wilson, while forcing evacuations of communities in the foothills below.

Several more areas, including Pasadena, a city of 140,000 people, remained under an evacuation warning, advising residents to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice. At the opposite end of the sprawling mountain range to the north, the fire was reported to have destroyed some homes and other structures in the high desert of the Antelope Valley.

Across the Bobcat fire zone and others, ground crews with axes, shovels and bulldozers clambered through rugged canyons and mountain slopes, hacking away tinder-dry brush and scrub before it could burn, creating containment lines around the perimeter of advancing flames.

They were assisted by squadrons of water-dropping helicopters and airplane tankers dumping flame retardant on the blazes.

Regardless of the progress they make this week, California’s record fire season remains far from over. The height of wildfire activity historically has run through October. Five of the state’s 20 largest blazes on record have occurred this year.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

U.S. to surpass grim milestone of 200,000 COVID-19 deaths

By Sangameswaran S

(Reuters) – The death toll from the spread of coronavirus in the United States was approaching over 200,000 lives on Monday, more than double the number of fatalities in India, the country reporting the second-highest number of cases in the world.

The United States, on a weekly average, is now losing about 800 lives each day to the virus, according to a Reuters tally. That is down from a peak of 2,806 daily deaths recorded on April 15.

During the early months of the pandemic, 200,000 deaths was regarded by many as the maximum number of lives likely to be lost in the United States to the virus.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield recently told Congress that a face mask would provide more guaranteed protection than a vaccine, which would only be broadly available by “late second quarter, third quarter 2021.”

The CDC currently predicts that the U.S. death toll will reach as high as 218,000 by Oct. 10.

The University of Washington’s health institute is forecasting coronavirus fatalities reaching 378,000 by the end of 2020, with the daily death toll skyrocketing to 3,000 per day in December.

Over 70% of those in the United States who have lost their lives to the virus were over the age of 65, according to CDC data.

The southern states of Texas and Florida contributed the most deaths in the United States in the past two weeks and was closely followed by California.

California, Texas and Florida – the three most populous U.S. states – have recorded the most coronavirus infections and have long surpassed the state of New York, which was the epicenter of the outbreak in early 2020. The country as a whole is reporting over 40,000 new infections on average each day.

As it battles a second wave of infections, the United States reported a 17% increase in the number of new cases last week compared with the previous seven days, with deaths rising 7% on average in the last, according to a Reuters analysis.

Six out of every 10,000 residents in the United States has died of the virus, according to Reuters data, one of the highest rates among developed nations.

Brazil follows the United States in the number of overall deaths due to the virus, with over 136,000 fatalities.

(Reporting by Sangameswaran S in Bengaluru; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Rosalba O’Brien)

Oregon governor seeks more federal help as wildfires burn in U.S. West

By Shannon Stapleton and Adrees Latif

(Reuters) – Oregon’s governor is seeking additional federal assistance as her state battles the deadly wildfires sweeping the western United States, and local residents pitched in on Tuesday to help the many people displaced by the blazes.

Dozens of wildfires have burned across some 4.5 million acres (1.8 million hectares) in California, Oregon and Washington state since August, ravaging several small towns, destroying thousands of homes and killing at least three dozen people.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown on Monday sent a letter to the White House requesting a Presidential Disaster Declaration following the federal emergency declaration on Sept. 10. The request from the Democratic governor includes a call for additional communications resources, damage-assessment teams, search-and-rescue and debris management, as well as help with shelter and medical assistance.

“Firefighting resources became completely exhausted during this event, and because both California and Washington state are experiencing similar wildfire emergencies, Oregon’s requests for assistance from neighboring states were, for days, going unfilled,” the letter said, explaining the need for further federal resources.

On Monday, President Donald Trump met with firefighters and officials in California.

Ten deaths have been confirmed during the past week in Oregon, the latest flashpoint in a larger summer outbreak of fires accompanied by lightning storms, heat waves and extreme winds.

The fires have put harmful levels of smoke and soot into the region’s air, painting skies with tones of orange and sepia even as local residents deal with another public health emergency in the coronavirus pandemic.

Cooler, moister weather and calmer winds over the weekend enabled firefighters to gain ground in efforts to outflank blazes that had burned largely unchecked last week. Thunderstorms forecast for later in the week could bring much-needed rain but also more lightning.

As disaster teams scoured the ruins of dwellings engulfed by flames amid chaotic evacuations last week, Oregon’s emergency management authorities said they had yet to account for 22 people reported missing in the fires.

‘A TOTAL BLESSING’

Tens of thousands of displaced residents across the Pacific Northwest continued to adjust to life as evacuees, many of them living out of their cars in parking lots. In some communities, local residents have pitched in to help people displaced by the fires.

Marcus Welch, a food service director and youth soccer coach in the southwestern Oregon city of Phoenix, said he has been helping a group of local high school students run a community donation center to assist a mostly Latino local population whose mobile homes were burned to the ground. About 600 people have come by to pick up donations, Welch added.

The high school students, whose homes were spared from the Almeda Fire, started handing out water bottles in the parking lot of a local Home Depot store last Wednesday and Thursday, Welch said.

By Friday, local residents began dropping off large amounts of items, including baby supplies, clothing and canned food, Welch said.

“Every day, I hear a sad story. Every day, I hear a family displaced. People are crying because high school kids are giving them food, water. … It’s been a total blessing,” Welch said. “Some people, they lost everything, so we encourage them to take everything they can.”

At least 25 people have perished in California wildfires since mid-August, and one death has been confirmed in Washington state. More than 6,200 homes and other structures have been lost, according to figures from all three states.

Reinforcing local law enforcement resources strained by the disaster, Oregon is deploying as many as 1,000 National Guard troops to fire-stricken communities.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter, Shannon Stapleton and Adrees Latif; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

‘All gone:’ Residents return to burned-out Oregon towns as many West Coast wildfires keep burning

By Adrees Latif and Patrick Fallon

TALENT, Ore. (Reuters) – Search-and-rescue teams, with dogs in tow, were deployed across the blackened ruins of southern Oregon towns on Sunday as smoldering wildfires still ravaged U.S. Pacific Coast states after causing widespread destruction.

A blitz of wildfires across Oregon, California and Washington has destroyed thousands of homes and a half dozen small towns this summer, scorching more than 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares) and killing more than two dozen people since early August.

Tracy Koa, a high school teacher, returned to Talent, Oregon, on Saturday after evacuating with her partner, Dave Tanksle, and 13-year-old daughter to find her house and neighborhood reduced to heaps of ash and rubble.

“We knew that it was gone,” Koa said in a telephone interview on Sunday. “But then you pull up, and the devastation of just every home, you think of every family and every situation and every burnt-down car, and there are just no words for it.”

Crews in Jackson County, Oregon, where Talent is located, were hoping to venture into rural areas where the Almeda Fire has abated slightly with slowing winds, sending up thick plumes of smoke as the embers burned. From Medford through the neighboring communities of Phoenix and Talent, an apocalyptic scene of charred residential subdivisions and trailer parks stretched for miles along Highway 99.

Community donation centers popped up around Jackson County over the weekend, including one in the parking lot of Home Depot in Phoenix, where farmers brought a pickup truck bed full of watermelons and people brought water and other supplies.

Farther north in Clackamas County, Dane Valentine, 28, showed a Reuters journalist the remains of his house.

“This is my home,” he said. “Yep. All gone.”

Down the road, a woman with a Trump 2020 sign on her home, pointed a shotgun at the journalist and shouted at him to leave.

“You’re the reason they’re setting fires up here,” she said, perhaps referring to false rumors that left-wing activists had sparked the wildfires.

After four days of brutally hot, windy weather, the weekend brought calmer winds blowing inland from the Pacific Ocean, and cooler, moister conditions that helped crews make headway against blazes that had burned unchecked last week.

Still, emergency officials worried that the shifting weather might not be enough to quell the fires.

“We’re concerned that the incoming front is not going to provide a lot of rain here in the Medford region and it’s going to bring increased winds,” Bureau of Land Management spokesman Kyle Sullivan told Reuters in a telephone interview on Sunday.

At least 10 people have been killed in Oregon, according to the office of emergency management. Oregon Governor Kate Brown has said dozens of people remain missing across three counties.

There were 34 active fires burning in Oregon as of Sunday morning, according to the state’s office of emergency management website.

CLIMATE CHANGE ‘WAKE-UP CALL’

Thick smoke and ash from the fires have darkened skies over the Pacific Northwest since Labor Day last Monday, creating some of the world’s worst air-quality levels and driving residents indoors. Satellite images showed the smoke was wafting inland in an easterly direction, the Bureau of Land Management said on Twitter on Sunday.

Drought conditions, extreme temperatures and high winds in Oregon created the “perfect firestorm” for the blazes to grow, Brown told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

“This is a wake-up call for all of us that we’ve got to do everything in our power to tackle climate change,” the Democratic governor said.

President Donald Trump was scheduled to travel to California and meet with federal and state officials on Monday. He has said that Western governors bear some of the blame for intense fire seasons in recent years, as opposed to warming temperatures, and has accused them of poor forest management.

In California, evacuations were ordered for the northern tip of the San Gabriel Valley suburb of Arcadia as the Bobcat Fire threatened communities.

At Wilderness Park in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, firefighters prepared to stave off the blaze as it worked its way downhill.

Steep terrain and dry hills that have not burned for 60 years are providing fuel for the blaze, which started over the Labor Day weekend.

As the smoke that has been clogging the air and blocking heat from the sun begins to lift, firefighters expect the weather to heat up and fire activity could increase, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.

All told in California, nearly 17,000 firefighters were battling 29 major wildfires on Sunday, Cal Fire said.

Improving weather conditions had helped them gain a measure of containment over blazes in many parts of the state, and some evacuated residents in Madera County near where the massive Creek Fire was burning, were allowed to go back home.

More than 4,000 homes and other structures have been incinerated in California alone over the past three weeks. About 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) of land have been burned in the state, according to Cal Fire.

(Reporting by Adrees Latif in Ashland, Oregon, and Patrick Fallon in Arcadia, California; Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein, Gabriella Borter, Dan Whitcomb, Doina Chiacu, Shannon Stapleton and Aishwarya Nair; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Nick Zieminski and Peter Cooney)

U.S. West wildfires kill 16; in Oregon 500,000 flee

By Carlos Barria and Adrees Latif

(Reuters) – Around half a million people in Oregon evacuated as dozens of extreme, wind-driven wildfires scorched U.S. West Coast states on Friday, destroying hundreds of homes and killing at least 16 people, state and local authorities said.

Since Monday 11 people have died from fires in California, while four were killed in Oregon and a 1-year-old boy died in Washington state, police reported.

In Oregon alone the number of people under evacuation orders climbed to some 500,000 – about an eighth of the state’s total population – as Portland suburbs came under threat from the state’s biggest blaze, the state Office of Emergency Management said.

Thousands more were displaced north and south in the neighboring states of Washington and California.

Oregon bore the brunt of nearly 100 major wildfires raging across Western states, with around 3,000 firefighters battling nearly three dozen blazes and officials saying about twice as many people were needed.

Police have opened a criminal arson investigation into at least one Oregon blaze, the Almeda Fire, which started in Ashland near the border with California and incinerated several hundred homes in adjacent communities along Bear Creek, Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara said.

The Oregon blazes tore through multiple communities in the Cascade mountain range as well as areas of coastal rainforest normally spared from wildfires. In eastern Washington state a fire destroyed most of the tiny farming town of Malden.

In central Oregon search-and-rescue teams entered devastated communities in the Santiam Valley to look for missing people.

To the south, a string of small communities along Interstate 5 near Medford were reduced to ashes after embers from a wildfire blew for miles.

Firefighters said unusually hot, dry winds out of the east supercharged blazes, spreading flames from community to community, and then from house to house.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown said some 900,000 acres (364,220 hectares) had burned, dwarfing the state’s annual 500,000-acre (202,340-hectare) average over the past decade.

“This will not be a onetime event,” Brown told a Thursday news conference. “We are feeling the acute impacts of climate change”

Climate scientists say global warming has contributed to greater extremes in wet and dry seasons, causing vegetation to flourish then dry out in the U.S. West, leaving more abundant, volatile fuel for fires.

Two of Oregon’s largest fires, burning around 20 miles (32 km) southeast of downtown Portland merged, leading to a major expansion of evacuations in densely populated Clackamas County,

In California, the United States’ most populous state, wildfires have burned over 3.1 million acres (1.25 million hectares) so far this year, marking a record for any year, with six of the top 20 largest wildfires in state history occurring in 2020.

About a third of evacuees were displaced in Butte County alone, north of Sacramento, where the North Complex wildfire has scorched more than 247,000 acres (99,960 hectares) and destroyed over 2,000 homes and structures.

The remains of 10 victims have been found in separate locations of that fire zone, according to a spokesman for the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.

Another person died in Siskiyou County in far northern California, state fire authority CalFire reported, providing no further details.

(Reporting by Carlos Barria and Adrees Latif; additional reporting by Andrew Hay, Steve Gorman and Sharon Bernstein; editing by Jonathan Oatis)