COVID-19 outbreak at Oregon’s Bootleg blaze sidelines 9 firefighters

By Barbara Goldberg

(Reuters) – The first COVID-19 outbreak among firefighters battling the enormous Bootleg fire in Oregon has put nine of them in quarantine as weather forecasters on Friday warned that relentlessly dry weather will persist over the weekend.

With the 400,389-acre blaze 40% contained, nine firefighters out of a 2,389-person force tested positive for coronavirus and were placed in quarantine with mild symptoms, said Stefan Myers, fire information spokesman for the Bootleg fire.

“We expect them all to make a full recovery,” Myers told Reuters.

Safety measures to stop virus spread, including social distancing at all four fire camps, appeared to be working for the most part.

“We are really heartened by the fact that there weren’t more firefighters exposed. They have to perform on a daily basis and that does lead to the possibility for exposure,” Myers said.

Citing privacy laws, he declined to comment on the age, gender and vaccination status of the nine people who are “quarantining away from the main body of the fire camp as to make sure they are isolated but also recovering.”

The so-called Bootleg fire, which was first reported July 6 in the Fremont-Winema National Forest some 250 miles south of Portland, was ignited by lightning but smoldered for days before it was detected.

Air quality amid the smoky blaze on Friday appeared to improve over all but two of 11 fire stations, authorities said. However, dry weather was expected to persist through the weekend, ramping up risk.

“There is really no relief in sight,” said Bob Oravec, lead forecaster with the National Weather Service in College Park, Maryland. “The fire weather will continue.”

On Friday, the fire remained most active on the northern and eastern portions, authorities said.

“The fire continues to throw challenges at us, and we are going to continue to stay vigilant, work hard and adapt,” Joe Hessel, incident commander for the Oregon Department of Forestry Incident Management Team said in a statement.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Mark Potter)

‘Dial back’ or ’emergency brake?’ New lockdowns and the U.S. economy

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – The surge in new COVID-19 infections is driving a fresh wave of restrictions in cities and counties across the United States.

California’s “emergency brake,” Oregon’s “freeze,” Philadelphia’s “safer at home” and Minnesota’s “dial back” are among a new patchwork of rules adopted by states, cities and counties that are much less strict and far more narrow than measures imposed to stop the spread of the virus in the spring.

The overall economic bite will be smaller, too, compared to the downdraft that started earlier this year and which led to roughly 22 million people losing their jobs, a collapse in retail spending and a recession.

“I don’t see where you get a 30% hit to GDP,” said Tim Duy, an economics professor at the University of Oregon. “There’s not as much to take off the table … I’m having a hard time seeing where you are going to derail the recovery.”

Businesses that were fully shut in March, like medical offices, shops, factories, and even hair salons, will remain open in many areas this time around.

That’s in part because many Americans have changed their behavior, businesses from manufacturers to retail stores have added routine temperature checks, and face masks are more common and in many states mandated. Meanwhile, consumers have embraced online shopping and curbside delivery to keep spending.

High-frequency data backs that up: even after the latest explosion in case numbers, economic activity has not collapsed.

SURGICAL STRIKE

Many of the latest restrictions target activities where science shows the spread of the virus is the most pernicious – indoor pursuits, in close quarters, for extended periods of time, or with heavy or unmasked breathing.

That means they will hurt some already hard-hit sectors of the economy, including hospitality and entertainment. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday issued a strong recommendation against travel over the Thanksgiving holiday this month, though it did not ban it outright.

Many of the more than two dozen states that have issued new restrictions this week have closed or restricted indoor dining and gyms. California, the biggest state by economic output, is among that group.

At the same time, businesses shut during California’s lockdowns in the spring, including shopping malls, body waxing venues, and barber shops, can continue to operate, albeit with some limits to contain the spread of the virus.

Philadelphia’s ban on indoor dining goes into effect on Friday.

Stock Fishtown and Stock Rittenhouse, which are owned by Philadelphia-based restaurateur Tyler Akin, will shift to carry-out and delivery mode. On Monday new rules in Delaware will force him to reduce capacity at his Le Cavalier restaurant in Wilmington to 30%, down from the current 50%. Though better than being entirely closed down, as was the case in March, Akin may need to adjust staffing to fit revenue.

“We have some really hard conversations ahead of us,” he said.

Efforts to adapt business to the realities of the pandemic may allow some restaurants and bars to weather the worst effects of the restrictions. In Oakland, California, as in many cities around the country, restaurants and bars have built platforms decked out with tables, chairs and propane heaters to make customers more comfortable outside in chillier weather.

It’s “a way to keep our businesses afloat,” said Ari Takata-Vasquez, who leads a small-business alliance in Oakland that has raised money to build the outdoor dining areas for cash-strapped eateries.

She’s working on, or completed, five of them – and has 30 eateries and gyms on the waiting list.

In Minnesota, movie theaters and yoga studios will shut at midnight on Friday, along with indoor and outdoor service at eateries, pubs and gyms. Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, like many of his counterparts across the country, is also telling families not to have household gatherings, and he acknowledged the new rules will be felt especially hard by small businesses.

“By closing your doors and putting your financial well-being at risk, you are protecting the lives of your neighbors,” he said this week.

LIGHTER LOCKDOWNS, LESS RELIEF

Many of the newly implemented restrictions are expected, at least for now, to last two to four weeks. But even though lockdowns will be more moderate – and in many places are simply sector-specific curfews rather than sweeping closures – business owners and employees, especially in the restaurant industry, are worried their own financial pain will be sharper.

That’s because Congress has shown little sign of delivering another round of fiscal relief, let alone the massive pandemic packages totaling some $3 trillion passed earlier this year.

The last of the extra government aid for the unemployed is due to run out at the end of this year. A bill with bipartisan support to rescue the restaurant industry is caught in limbo in Congress, as the outgoing Trump administration focuses on challenging the results of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

While households overall still have excess savings, built in part from prior government aid, for many families that money is likely to run out before a vaccine comes into widespread use.

(Reporting by Ann Saphir and Jonnelle Marte and Howard Schneider; Editing by Paul Simao)

Up in smoke: California wine country counts cost of wildfire damage

By Marco Hernandez and Simon Scarr

(Reuters) – When a wildfire swept down California’s Napa Valley in August, winemaker Patrick Elliot-Smith stayed put, fighting the encroaching flames with water pumps and laying fire breaks around his vines in a battle with nature that lasted three days.

He and his son managed to save their family-run Elan winery in the valley’s Atlas Peak appellation.

But smoke damage from the LNU Complex fire was so bad that they – along with dozens of other wineries damaged or burned down by some of the worst U.S. wildfires in living memory – decided not to harvest any grapes this year or sell fruit to other producers.

“We cannot afford a bad vintage,” Elliot-Smith told Reuters. “It looks like a lunar landscape here.”

When smoke is absorbed into a vine and concentrates in the fruit, it alters a grape’s chemistry and ultimately its taste, leaving some wines with “ashtray aromas” that may appear during fermentation or even as late as after bottling.

Smoke has blanketed much of the U.S. West and fires have charred more than 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares) in California so far in 2020, more than twice the previous record for any year.

The still active Glass Fire has destroyed dozens of buildings, including the mansion-like Chateau Boswell winery and a farmhouse containing storage, bottling and fermentation facilities at the Tuscan castle-style Castello di Amorosa.

Both producers’ premium reds sell for upwards of $200 a bottle.

The Newton Vineyard winery also went up in flames, according to a Reuters photographer who visited the site, observing rivulets of red wine mixed with ash flowing down its main access road.

HUNDREDS OF SMOKE TAINT CLAIMS

Susan Meyer, owner of RustRidge Winery, said her crop was a write-off “both from the fire itself and the smoke that lingered for days. Many plants were burned by fire but others died from the heat exposure,” she said.

Her insurance provider alone was dealing with 600 claims for smoke taint, she added.

The true impact on a $70 billion-a-year national industry centered in California, Oregon and Washington state will not be known for months as the wildfire season is not yet over.

While grapes picked from the vine before exposure are safe from smoke taint, many winemakers with as yet unpicked harvests are awaiting the results of smoke testing from backlogged wine laboratories before deciding whether to proceed.

A notice this week on the website of Napa Valley-based ETS Laboratories warned of a wait till November for new tests.

Its co-founder and technical director, Gordon Burns, said it was too early to speculate as to the overall damage.

“Every location is different, and smoke exposure may be transitory and as little as none at all. Any fire impacts will certainly not be to the entire vintage in any of the affected winegrowing regions,” he added.

Eric Jensen, owner of Booker and My Favorite Neighbor wineries in California’s Paso Robles region, said he expected his crop to have escaped damaged “because of the distance that the smoke traveled to get to us.

“But in Napa and (neighboring) Sonoma, the proximity is causing issues.”

Further North in Oregon’s picturesque Willamette Valley, Jason Hanson of Hanson Vineyards expects his crews may only harvest five tons of grapes, down from at least 25 last year, due to smoke taint from nearby fires.

“With the dense smoke that we’ve had at the ground level for so long now, almost everything has to be affected or damaged,” Hanson said.

“I have a yearly fight with the birds. This year I’ll just let them win.”

(writing by John Stonestreet)

Napa Valley wineries menaced by wildfire, as second California blaze kills three

By Adrees Latif and Stephen Lam

CALISTOGA, Calif. (Reuters) – Firefighters in Northern California on Tuesday struggled to make headway against two fast-moving, destructive wildfires, one threatening towns and wineries in Napa Valley and another that killed three people in the Cascade foothills closer to the Oregon border.

The three fatalities in the so-called Zogg Fire that erupted on Sunday in Shasta County, about 200 miles (322 km) north of San Francisco, were reported Monday evening by the local sheriff. As of Tuesday there were still no details on how or when they perished.

All three were civilians, and their deaths brought to 30 the number of people killed since January – 29 of them just over the past six weeks – in what now stands as the worst year on record for California wildfires in terms of acreage burned

Farther south, the Glass Fire also raged for a third day in wine country, where it destroyed the popular mansion-like Chateau Boswell winery Sunday night and a building at the Castello di Amorosa winery, whose landmark architecture was inspired by a 13th-century Tuscan castle, on Monday.

But wine industry officials said the longer-term ramifications of the Glass Fire and a spate of other blazes that came before it is likely to be a 2020 vintage of diminished volume because of grapes spoiled by heavy exposure to smoke.

Some 80,000 people have been placed under evacuation orders in the middle of harvest season, including all 5,300 residents of Calistoga, a resort town known for its hot springs and mud baths and the site of the Castello di Amorosa complex.

Although both fires were still zero-percent contained, calmer winds could give firefighters an edge on Tuesday despite continuing above-normal heat and low humidity, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, officials said.

The Zogg fire, burning near the town of Redding, has destroyed 146 structures and charred more than 40,000 acres (16,180 hectares) of grassy hillsides and oak woodlands thick with dense, dry scrub. About 15,000 structures were listed as threatened, and 2,200 residents were under evacuation orders or advisories.

After merging with three other blazes, the Glass Fire had spread across more than 42,000 acres (16,990 hectares) in Napa and Sonoma counties, incinerating at least 80 homes and 32 other structures, according to Cal Fire.

Napa Valley residents Matthew Rivard and Amanda Crean parked their car by a sign reading “Welcome to the World Famous Wine Growing Region” on Monday night and watched flames surround the Schramsberg Vineyards, known for its sparkling wines.

WINE COUNTRY HAVOC

A short distance to the northwest, flames destroyed a farmhouse containing a wine-storage chamber, a fermentation room, a bottling facility and offices at the Castello di Amorosa winery, but its distinctive castle complex and tasting room remained unscathed, Chief Executive Georg Salzner said.

The majority of its wine supply, about 100,000 cases stored elsewhere, remained safe, he said. The owner, Dario Sattui, had hurried to the complex before dawn on Monday to find the castle surrounded by flames and called for help, Salzner told Reuters.

“The main building, which was not affected, might have burned down too if it hadn’t been for the firefighters,” he said.

In the heart of Calistoga, the evacuation left its main street, known for boutiques and tasting rooms, looking like a ghost town, according to a Reuters photographer.

As of Wednesday, no wineries were reported to have burned in neighboring Sonoma County, though a “couple of outbuildings and accessory buildings” were damaged, said Michael Haney, executive director of the Sonoma County Vintners trade group.

The Glass Fire struck midway through the traditional grape-harvesting season in Napa and Sonoma counties, both world-renowned among California’s wine-producing regions and still reeling from a cluster of large wildfires earlier this summer.

The full effect on the region’s wine business remained to be seen. But Haney said vintners would likely scale back production of certain wines due to smoke exposure to grapes still on the vines when the fires struck.

“I do know there are wineries saying we have been impacted and we won’t be making as much wine,” he said. Several Napa Valley growers said recently they would forgo a 2020 vintage altogether due to smoke contamination of their crop.

The blazes in Shasta County and wine country marked the latest flashpoints in a destructive spate of wildfires this summer across the U.S. West.

California fires have scorched over 3.8 million acres (1.5 million hectares) since January – far exceeding any single year in state history. They have been stoked by increasingly frequent and prolonged bouts of extreme heat, high winds and dry-lightning sieges that scientists attribute to climate change.

More than 7,000 homes and other structures have burned statewide this year.

(Reporting by Adrees Latif and Stephen Lam; Additional reporting and writing by Andrew Hay and Steve Gorman; Editing by David Gregorio and Jonathan Oatis)

Oregon inmates find redemption in fighting wildfires

By Adrees Latif

PAISLEY, Ore. (Reuters) – In the flames, they are finding redemption.

The 10 Oregon prisoners carry chainsaws, axes, shovels and hoes into the biggest wildfires the state has seen in a century.

Banding together, they form lines in the forest and trudge up the steep ashen slopes of the Cascade Mountains, hunting embers that could reignite flames.

The men are part of a seven-decade-old state-run program that aims to do two basic things: Rehabilitate prisoners by teaching them a trade, and provide extra boots on the ground for intense wildfire seasons.

A dozen such crews have worked fires in Oregon this month, which has seen over 1 million acres burn and nine people die during this year’s wildfire season.

The men in a crew working the forested mountains near Paisley, Oregon, last week were mostly young and fit. They had to be to scale the punishing terrain. Ankle-deep ash slicked hills and meant the men slipped two steps back for each stride forward.

Many were violent offenders – armed robberies and assaults were common convictions – but none were in prison for homicide or sexual crimes. Most say they have personalities that feed off adrenaline. The highs that crime brought landed them in jail. All say they are blessed to have found a legal, alternative rush.

“This gives us a different opportunity, rather than going back to something that we already know, which is guns, gangs, violence and drugs,” said Eddie Correia, 36, who is about halfway through his six-year sentence for an assault conviction.

Correia’s crew had 10 prisoners who spent their days fighting fires and another 10 who slept and worked in an Oregon Department of Forestry support camp, picking up trash, serving food and providing other services. They earn $6 a day for their labor.

The men wake at 6:30 a.m. each day in Oregon’s cold early fall dawn. They dress in sweatshirts emblazoned with the word INMATE and make their way to a makeshift breakfast area, where they sip coffee, stamp their feet to ward off the chill and chat about the chore that awaits them.

Around them, the flat green pastures of the Fremont National Forest run right up to the fire-devastated mountains, where billows of white smoke float upward from the flames.

The men prep their equipment before heading out, using files to sharpen axes and triple checking their bright yellow backpacks to make sure all their gear is there.

Armando Gomez-Zacarias, 24, who has just over three years left on a 7-1/2 year sentence for robbery, said the work gave him “a nice adrenaline rush.”

The physical toll, he emphasized, was brutal.

“It’s like running 100 laps on the track without stopping and carrying 50 pounds of weight,” he said.

Correia, who has fought fires in the program since 2018 and wants to continue after he is released from jail, said the strenuous work and danger fostered a camaraderie impossible to replicate inside prison walls.

Those connections and sense of purpose, he said, “have helped me deal with a lot of my own demons.”

(Reporting by Adrees Latif in Paisley, Oregon; Additional reporting and writing by Brad Brooks; Editing by Richard Chang)

U.S. Midwest sees surge in COVID-19 cases as four states report record increases

By Anurag Maan and Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – Four U.S. states in the Midwest reported record one-day increases in COVID-19 cases on Saturday as infections rise nationally for a second week in a row, according to a Reuters analysis.

Minnesota reported 1,418 new cases, Montana 343 new cases, South Dakota reported 579 and Wisconsin had 2,902 new cases.

In the last week, seven mostly Midwest states have reported record one-day rises in new infections — Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Minnesota and Utah reported record increases two days in a row.

The United States recorded 58,461 new cases on Friday, the highest one-day increase since Aug. 7. The United States is reporting nearly 46,000 new infections on average each day, compared with 40,000 a week ago and 35,000 two weeks ago.

All Midwest states except Ohio reported more cases in the past four weeks as compared with the prior four weeks, according to a Reuters analysis.

Some of the new cases are likely related to an increase in the number of tests performed. In the last week, the country has performed over 1 million coronavirus tests three out of seven days — a new record, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

However, hospitalizations have also surged in the Midwest and are not influenced by the number of tests performed.

Wisconsin’s hospitalizations have set new records for six days in a row, rising to 543 on Friday from 342 a week ago. South Dakota’s hospitalizations set records five times this week, rising to 213 on Saturday from 153 last week.

“Wisconsin is now experiencing unprecedented, near-exponential growth of the number of COVID-19 cases in our state,” Governor Tony Evers said in a video posted on social media.

Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming have also seen record numbers of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the past week.

Cases have also begun rising again in the Northeast, including the early epicenters of New York and New Jersey.

In New York, more than 1,000 people tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday for the first time since June 5, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Saturday.

The United States recently surpassed 200,000 lives lost from the coronavirus, the highest death toll in the world.

(Reporting by Anurag Maan in Bengaluru and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

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 firefighters make stand to save famed observatory, homes

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Crews fought on Tuesday to defend homes and the famed Mount Wilson Observatory from California’s biggest and most dangerous wildfire, standing their ground at a major highway between the flames and populated areas.

The Bobcat Fire, which broke out Sept. 6 in the Angeles National Forest north of Los Angeles, has already blackened an area larger than the city of Atlanta and its rapid spread prompted worried law enforcement officials to call for new evacuations on Monday evening.

Once home to the largest operational telescope in the world, the Mount Wilson Observatory, which sits on a peak of the San Gabriel mountains near vital communications towers, said in an update that almost all the forest around it had burned.

Firefighters overnight kept the Bobcat from breaching containment lines near the observatory and were preventively burning vegetation ahead of the fire along state Highway 2, which runs northeast from Los Angeles.

This summer California already has seen more land charred by wildfires than in any previous full year, with some 3.4 million acres burned since mid-August.

The fires, stoked by extreme weather conditions that some scientists call evidence of climate change, have destroyed some 6,100 homes and other structures and killed 26 people, three of them firefighters.

Another 2 million acres have burned in Oregon and Washington during an outbreak of wildfires, destroying more than 4,400 structures and claiming 10 lives. But rain showers across the western Cascade mountain range helped fire crews in the Pacific Northwest gain control of those conflagrations.

Although California has seen little rain in September, bouts of high temperatures and gale-force winds have given way in recent days to cooler weather, enabling firefighters to gain ground.

But forecasters predict rising temperatures, lower humidity and a return of strong, erratic winds around midweek in Southern California and by the weekend across the state’s northern half, lending urgency to the firefight.

The Bobcat Fire has now scorched more than 109,000 acres to become one of the largest wildfires in recorded Los Angeles County history and was only 17% contained on Tuesday afternoon.

The flames came perilously close to the Mount Wilson Observatory last week before they were driven back by crews using air support.

Several more areas, including Pasadena, a city of 140,000 people, remained under evacuation warnings.

California’s fire season historically has run through October. Five of the state’s 20 largest blazes on record have occurred this year.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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)

Crews battle wildfires in U.S. West as smoke travels the world

By Deborah Bloom and Brad Brooks

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) – As fire crews continued to battle deadly wildfires sweeping the western United States, thousands of evacuees in Oregon and other states faced a daily struggle while scientists in Europe tracked the smoke on Wednesday as it spread on an intercontinental scale.

With state resources stretched to their limit, President Donald Trump on Tuesday night approved a request from Oregon’s governor for a federal disaster declaration, bolstering federal assistance for emergency response and relief efforts.

Dozens of fires have burned some 4.5 million acres (1.8 million hectares) of tinder-dry brush, grass and woodlands in Oregon, California and Washington state since August, ravaging several small towns, destroying thousands of homes and killing at least 34 people.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has obligated more than $1.2 million in mission assignments to bring relief to Oregon and has deployed five urban search and rescue teams to the wildfire-torn region, the agency said in a statement on Wednesday.

Search teams scoured incinerated homes for the missing as firefighters kept up their exhausting battle.

The wildfires, which officials and scientists have described as unprecedented in scope and ferocity, have filled the region’s skies with smoke and soot, compounding a public health crisis already posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Scientists in Europe tracked the smoke as it bore down on the continent, underscoring the magnitude of the disaster. The European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) is monitoring the scale and intensity of the fires and the transport of the resultant smoke across the United States and beyond.

“The fact that these fires are emitting so much pollution into the atmosphere that we can still see thick smoke over 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles) away reflects just how devastating they have been in their magnitude and duration,” CAMS Senior Scientist Mark Parrington said in a statement.

CAMS said it uses satellite observations of aerosols, carbon monoxide and other constituents of smoke to monitor and forecast its movement through the atmosphere.

Eight deaths have been confirmed during the past week in Oregon, which became the latest and most concentrated hot spot in a larger summer outbreak of fires across the entire western United States. The Pacific Northwest was hardest hit.

The fires roared to life in California in mid-August, and erupted across Oregon and Washington around Labor Day last week, many of them sparked by catastrophic lightning storms and stoked by record-breaking heat waves and bouts of howling winds.

Weather conditions improved early this week, enabling firefighters to begin to make headway in efforts to contain and tamp down the blazes.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) said 16,600 firefighters were still battling 25 major fires on Tuesday, after achieving full containment around the perimeter of other large blazes.

Firefighters in the San Gabriel Mountains just north of Los Angeles waged an all-out campaign to save the famed Mount Wilson Observatory and an adjacent complex of broadcast transmission towers from flames that crept near the site.

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