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)

Smoke stalls rescues as Australia plans for next fiery onslaught

By Sonali Paul and Swati Pandey

MELBOURNE/SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian officials took advantage of better weather on Monday to reopen roads blocked by wildfires and move some people to safety although thick smoke stalled rescue efforts and hundreds of people remained stranded.

Fires have ravaged more than 8 million hectares (19.8 million acres) of land across the country, an area nearly the size of Austria, killing 25 people, destroying thousands of building and leaving some towns without electricity and mobile coverage.

Police on Monday confirmed the death of a 71-year-old man on the south coast of New South Wales (NSW) state who was reported missing on Dec. 31.

A second day of light rain and cool winds brought some relief from heat-fueled blazes that consumed parts of two states over the weekend, but officials warned the dangerous weather was expected to return this week.

Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews said about 400 people were airlifted on Sunday out of Mallacoota, a small, coastal holiday town.

“We had a plan to airlift another 300 out today. Sadly smoke means that is not possible,” he said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has come under criticism for what opponents call his government’s failure to tackle climate change, announced A$2 billion ($1.4 billion) over two years for a newly formed National Bushfire Recovery Agency.

“What we are focusing on here is the human cost and the rebuilding cost for people’s lives,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

He said nearly 4,000 cattle and sheep have been killed in the fires. Countless wild animals have been killed.

Dean Linton, a resident of Jindabyne in the Snowy Mountains, used the break in the immediate threat to his town to visit his wife and four children who had fled to Sydney.

He also picked up a fire-fighting pump and generator to help him protect the family home.

“There’s a lot of fuel in that national park; it would only take one lightning strike,” Linton told Reuters.

The bushfire season started earlier than normal this year following a three-year drought that has left much of the country’s bushland tinder-dry.

Following are some highlights of what is happening:

* New Zealand Defence Force said the first of three air force helicopters being sent to help departed on Monday while the other two were expected over the next two days.

* There were no emergency warnings in fire-ravaged states on Monday following the weather change. Two people were missing as 146 fires burned in New South Wales (NSW) but all were back at the “advice” level, the lowest alert rating.

* Victoria state had 39 fires with 13 “watch and act” alerts. All missing people had been accounted for, authorities said.

* About 67,000 people have left or been evacuated from fire-ravaged areas in Victoria, state Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said.

* Victoria set up a Bushfire Recovery Agency, with initial funding of A$50 million. The recovery is expected to cost “a lot more” than A$500 million, state premier Andrews said.

* Fire officials said light rain that has brought some relief posed problems for back-burning efforts to starve fires of fuel.

* NSW state power distributor Essential Energy said its network had suffered “significant damage”, with almost 24,000 customers without power. It might take a while to restore power to some areas because of the extent of damage and difficulty in gaining safe access, it said. Affected areas include Batemans Bay on the New South Wales south coast.

* As conditions eased, the NSW fire service said residents of Bega, Tathra, Merimbula, Eden, Pambula, Bermagui and villages to the north and south can now return though they need to monitor conditions.

* Insurers have received 5,850 bushfire-related claims in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland since the Insurance Council declared a bushfire catastrophe on Nov. 8.

* Losses are estimated at A$375 million since November, with a further A$56 million in insured property losses in September and October, the Insurance Council said. Figures do not include properties lost over the past 24 to 36 hours in areas such as the NSW Southern Highlands and south coast.

* Accommodation provider Aspen Group <APZ.AX> said it expects a A$500,000 hit to both revenue and net operating income from the fires.

* Canberra was running short of masks as smoke blanketed the capital, ACT emergency services said. The National Gallery of Australia said it was closed to protect visitors and art works. The government department responsible for coordinating disaster response also closed due to poor air quality.

* Pictures on social media showed the city of Melbourne cloaked in thick smoke.

* Actor Russell Crowe skipped Hollywood’s Golden Globes ceremony, where he won an award for playing former Fox News Chief Executive Roger Ailes in the TV series “The Loudest Voice in the Room”. Presenter Jennifer Aniston said Crowe stayed in Australia to protect his family from the fires and read remarks he had prepared in which he said the fires were “climate change based”.

* Prime Minister Morrison faced more criticism of his handling of the crisis. “Poor political judgment is one thing. Competency is another thing altogether. This is the political danger zone Scott Morrison wants to avoid,” Rupert Murdoch’s the Australian newspaper, a supporter of the government, said in an article by the newspaper’s national affairs editor.

* Forty-one U.S. firefighters are in Victoria with a further 70 from Canada and the United States expected to join on Jan. 8, the Victoria Country Fire Authority said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul and Swati Pandey; Additional reporting by Paulina Duran and Jonathan Barrett in Sydney and Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles; Editing by Jane Wardell, Robert Birsel)

Australians shelter from bushfires as political heat climbs

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Firefighters battled hundreds of bushfires across Australia on Thursday as scores of blazes sprang up in new locations, triggering warnings that it was too late for some residents to evacuate.

As Thick smoke blanketed the most populous city of Sydney for a third day, residents were urged to keep children indoors, stepping up pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to tackle climate change.

By early afternoon, dozens of fires were burning across the southeastern state of Victoria and temperatures of 40.9 Celsius (105.6 F) in Melbourne, its capital, matched the hottest day on record in 1894, Australia’s weather bureau said.

Authorities warned residents of towns about 50 km (31 miles) north of Ballarat, the state’s third largest city, that it was too late for them to evacuate safely.

“You are in danger, act now to protect yourself,” fire authorities said in an alert. “It is too late to leave. The safest option is to take shelter indoors immediately.”

Blazes across several states have endangered thousands of people, killing at least four people this month, burning about 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of farmland and bush and destroying more than 400 homes.

The early arrival and severity of the fires in the southern hemisphere spring follows three years of drought that experts have linked to climate change and which have left bushland tinder-dry.

With 10 days remaining to the official start of summer, extreme temperatures and high winds have sparked wildfires in new areas, even as firefighters tracked the crisis across the mainland, the Northern Territory and the island of Tasmania.

In Victoria, power to more than 100,000 homes was knocked out amid lightning strikes and strong, gusty winds of more than 110 kph (68 mph) that knocked tree branches into power lines, ahead of a cool change expected to bring relief in the evening.

The extensive damage was likely to leave some customers without power through the night as utilities worked to restore networks and fix downed powerlines, a spokeswoman for power provider Ausnet said.

State authorities issued its first Code Red alert in a decade, signifying the worst possible bushfire conditions, warning that should a fire start it would be fast moving, unpredictable and probably uncontrollable.

In the state of New South Wales, strong winds blew smoke from 60 fires still burning over much of Sydney, shrouding the harbor city and its famous landmarks in thick smog.

The state imposed tough new water curbs in Sydney from Dec. 10, when a key dam is expected to be down to 45% capacity. Residents face fines if they use hoses to water their gardens and wash their cars.

CLIMATE POLITICS

The unrelenting conditions have sharpened attention on the climate change policies of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who rejected any link.

“Climate change is a global phenomenon, and we’re doing our bit as part of the response to climate change,” Morrison told ABC radio.

“To suggest that, with just 1.3% of global emissions, that Australia doing something differently – more or less – would have changed the fire outcome this season, I don’t think that stands up to any credible scientific evidence at all.”

Morrison’s conservative government has committed to the Paris Agreement for a cut in emissions from 26% to 28% by 2030, versus 2005 levels. Critics say current projections suggest it will miss that target and have urged remedial steps.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Jane Wardell and Clarence Fernandez)

Sydneysiders urged to stay indoors as Australian bushfire smoke blankets city

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Strong winds stoked more than 100 fires across Australia’s east coast on Tuesday, blanketing Sydney in hazardous smoke and prompting health warnings for the country’s most populous city.

Australia is prone to bushfires in its dry, hot summers, but fierce blazes have been sparked early, in the southern spring, by a long drought and soaring temperatures.

Wildfires have so far this month claimed at least four lives, burnt about 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of farmland and bush and destroyed more than 300 homes.

Powerful winds fanned around 130 fires that have been burning across New South Wales and Queensland states for several days, and pushed smoke south to form a thick haze over Sydney, home to around 5 million people.

Officials said the air quality above parts of the harbor city was measured at 10 times hazardous levels on Tuesday and advised people to stay indoors as much as possible as the smoke lingers over coming days.

“We know that heatwaves cause severe illness, hospital admission and even deaths, and that people are more sensitive to heatwaves early in the season,” Richard Broom, director of environmental health at NSW Health said In an emailed statement.

“The combination of heat and poor air quality adds to the risk.”

In NSW, firefighters were scrambling to strengthen fire containment lines ahead of forecast higher temperatures for much of the rest of the week.

“More than 1,300 firefighters are working on these fires, undertaking backburning operations and strengthening containment lines ahead of forecast hot, dry and windy weather, with seven areas under a total fire ban,” the NSW Rural Fire Service said in a statement.

The current bushfire crisis has mostly been contained to the east coast of NSW and Queensland states, but officials in South Australia warned on Tuesday that forecast near-record temperatures raises the risks in that state.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said temperatures in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, will hit 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 degrees Fahrenheit) on Wednesday, which coupled with strong winds will create “catastrophic” fire danger conditions.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Paul Tait and Jane Wardell)

The sky never goes dark while the Amazon burns

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, Brazil August 14, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

By Jake Spring

HUMAITA, Brazil (Reuters) – There are no lights in sight but the night sky glows a dusky yellow, for the Amazon is burning.

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, Brazil August 17, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, Brazil August 17, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

The smell is of barbecue, of wood charcoal up in flames. During the day the sun, usually so fierce in these parts, is obscured by thick gray smoke.

For the last seven days Reuters has repeatedly driven a 30-kilometer (18.6 miles) stretch from Humaita towards Labrea along the Trans-Amazonian highway, watching a fire eat its way through the jungle.

At first, on Wednesday of last week the raging fire stood just a few yards (meters) off the roadway, the yellow flames engulfing trees and lighting up the sky. By the weekend the fire had receded into the distance but cast an orange glow several stories high.

The fire is just one of thousands currently decimating the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest and a bulwark against climate change.

Wildfires have surged 83% so far this year when compared to the same period in 2018, according to Brazil’s space research agency INPE.

The government agency has registered 72,843 fires, the highest number since records began in 2013. More than 9,500 have been spotted by satellites since last Thursday alone.

On Wednesday, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro enraged environmentalists by making unfounded claims that non-governmental organizations were starting the fires out of anger after he cut their funding.

Global outrage has torn through social media, with #PrayforAmazonas the world’s top trending topic on Twitter on Wednesday.

Reuters observed plumes of smoke billowing from the forest, reaching hundreds of feet (dozens of meters) into the air, during a weeklong trip to southern Amazonas and northern Rondonia states.

“All you can see is smoke,” said Thiago Parintintin, who lives in an indigenous reserve just off the Trans-Amazonian highway, pointing to the horizon.

A yellow truck bearing the logo of Brazil’s forest firefighters had just rushed past.

“It didn’t use to be like this,” Parintintin added.

A 22-year-old trained indigenous environmental agent, Parintintin blames the increasing development of the Amazon for bringing agriculture and deforestation, resulting in rising temperatures during the dry season.

Fires start in the underbrush that has been drying over the dry season. Smoke envelopes still lush patches of fronds and palm trees, as the understory smolders before the upper tiers of vegetation catch fire.

Environmentalists also say farmers set the forest alight to clear land for cattle grazing.

The smoke from the resulting fires hangs at the horizon like a fog.

Gabriel Albuquerque, a pilot in Rondonia state’s capital city of Porto Velho, said that in four years of flying his small propeller plane it has never been this bad.

“It is the first time that I’ve ever seen it like this,” he said, as he prepared to go up.

From the sky, the fires ranged from small pockets to those bigger than a football field, with the smoke making it impossible to see behind the front line of flames to discern the full extent of the blaze.

Sometimes the smoke was so thick the forest itself appeared to have disappeared.

(Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Plane used to carry U.S. troops catches fire at Irish airport

Emergency vehicles respond after an Omni Air International Boeing 767-300 (not pictured) caught fire at Shannon Airport, Ireland August 15, 2019 in this image obtained from social media. Charles Pereira via REUTERS

DUBLIN (Reuters) – A plane that regularly carries U.S. troops through Ireland’s Shannon Airport caught fire shortly before it was due to take off on Thursday, forcing a five-hour suspension of flights at Shannon and cancellation of some trips.

Shannon Airport temporarily suspended operations at 0537 GMT after the incident involving an Omni Air International Boeing 767-300 due to depart for the Middle East. All 145 passengers and 14 crew disembarked after emergency services were called.

Air traffic controllers noticed a fire and smoke coming from the aircraft as it taxied along the runway after having to abort its take-off for technical reasons, according to Niall Maloney, operations director at Shannon Airport.

“The problem with an aborted take-off is you can probably get things like hot brakes and when the aircraft went around again to come back on the apron, a flame was spotted,” Maloney told Irish national broadcaster RTE.

Omni Air International is a civilian airline that says it transports U.S. and foreign military troops and military family members around the world.

In a Twitter post, Omni Air said it was participating in an investigation of the incident after the aircraft “rejected take-off” and was safely evacuated. Initial reports indicated no serious injuries to passengers or crew, it added.

Ireland provides landing and refueling facilities to the U.S. military at Shannon, the country’s second busiest airport, particularly for transatlantic flights.

An average of around 300 U.S. troops passed through Shannon Airport each day in the first three months of the year, according to Ireland’s Transport Ministry.

The incident forced the cancellation of 10 flights including eight to and from Britain operated by IAG’s Aer Lingus, and an American Airlines aircraft that was due to arrive from Philadelphia before it returned to the U.S. city.

The airport reopened just before 1030 GMT.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Ethiopian plane smoked and shuddered before deadly plunge

Ethiopian Federal policemen stand at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

By Duncan Miriri

GARA-BOKKA, Ethiopia (Reuters) – The Ethiopian Airways plane that crashed killing 157 people was making a strange rattling noise and trailed smoke and debris as it swerved above a field of panicked cows before hitting earth, according to witnesses.

Flight 302 took off from the Ethiopian capital on Sunday morning bound for Nairobi with passengers from more than 30 countries. All on board the Boeing 737 MAX 8 died.

The pilot had requested permission to return, saying he was having problems – but it was too late.

(graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/2CdCVUi)

Half a dozen witnesses interviewed by Reuters in the farmland where the plane came down reported smoke billowing out behind, while four of them also described a loud sound.

“It was a loud rattling sound. Like straining and shaking metal,” said Turn Buzuna, a 26-year-old housewife and farmer who lives about 300 meters (328 yards) from the crash site.

“Everyone says they have never heard that kind of sound from a plane and they are under a flight path,” she added.

Malka Galato, 47, a barley and wheat farmer whose field the plane crashed in, also described smoke and sparks from the back. “The plane was very close to the ground and it made a turn… Cows that were grazing in the fields ran in panic,” he said.

Tamirat Abera, 25, was walking past the field at the time. He said the plane turned sharply, trailing white smoke and items like clothes and papers, then crashed about 300 meters away.

“It tried to climb but it failed and went down nose first,” he said. “There was fire and white smoke which then turned black.”

CHILDREN’S BOOKS, PERFUME AT CRASH

As the plane had only just taken off, it was loaded with fuel.

At the site, Red Cross workers in masks sifted gently through victims’ belongings. Children’s books – Dr Seuss’s “Oh The Thinks You Can Think” and “Anne of Green Gables” – lay near a French-English dictionary burnt along one edge.

A woman’s brown handbag, the bottom burnt, lay open next to an empty bottle of perfume.

The aircraft was broken into small pieces, the largest among them a wheel and a dented engine. The debris was spread over land roughly the size of two soccer fields.

“When it was hovering, fire was following its tail, then it tried to lift its nose,” said another witness, Gadisa Benti. “When it passed over our house, the nose pointed down and the tail raised up. It went straight to the ground with its nose, it then exploded.”

Local resident Nigusu Tesema helped gather victims’ scattered identity papers to hand to police.

“We are shocked and saddened,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Kumerra Gemechu and Tiksa Negeri; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Passengers recount escape from burning Mexican plane

Firefighters douse a fire as smoke billows above the site where an Aeromexico-operated Embraer passenger jet crashed in Mexico's northern state of Durango, July 31, 2018, in this picture obtained from social media. Proteccion Civil Durango/via REUTERS

By Julia Love and Daina Beth Solomon

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Shortly after boarding her flight in the northern Mexican state of Durango afternoon on Tuesday afternoon, Ashley Garcia had a premonition that something was wrong.

The 17-year-old high school student from Northlake, a suburb of Chicago, was one of 65 U.S. citizens among the 103 passengers and crew aboard the Aeromexico passenger jet that crashed near the runway shortly after take-off.

Settling into her seat, Garcia saw a storm was gathering fast in the distance, and by the time the aircraft began preparing for takeoff it was battered by strong winds, hail and rain. Garcia captured the scene through her window with her cellphone.

“I had a gut feeling: just record it, just record it,” said Garcia. “I was like, there’s no way we are taking off, it’s too risky.”

The flight crashed moments after taking off, skidding to a halt in scrubland near the runway, a wing in flames. Passengers described how they followed escape procedures, enabling everyone to evacuate without any fatalities.

“We had been told so many times what to do,” Garcia said of the safety protocol passengers around the world are taught every time they board a plane. “No one ever thinks it’s going to happen until it happens to them. We were there for each other… That’s how we were able to get off safely.”

Investigators found the Embraer passenger jet’s recorders on Wednesday and have still to determine the cause of the crash. Aeromexico said 64 people have been released from hospitals. Two people, including the pilot, were more seriously injured.

Garcia was returning to the United States with three cousins after a two-week trip to visit relatives, traveling from Durango to Mexico City to catch a connecting flight to Chicago.

Liliana Gallarzo, Garcia’s cousin, thought the bumpy take-off was turbulence until the aircraft began skidding and panic set in.

“We were screaming,” said Gallarzo, a 19-year-old college student from Chicago. “Everyone was trying to get away from the plane, trying to get out.”

They smelled the smoke right away. But the cousins were seated in the middle of the cabin, and passengers were exiting from the front and rear doors, as the emergency exits in the middle of the plane were unused due to the fire near the wing, Garcia said.

Filing behind fellow travelers, they made their way toward the rear as the aircraft filled with smoke. Garcia grabbed her phone but left her luggage behind, losing her glasses in the shuffle.

When they reached the exit, there were no emergency slides, meaning they had to jump, Garcia said. A trampoline was there to cushion their fall, and fellow passengers helped them make the jump.

Once off the plane, Garcia coughed and vomited, choking for air. A flight attendant directed the cousins to get as far away as possible from the plane, which was soon engulfed by the fire, leaving only smoldering wreckage after firefighters extinguished the blaze. They walked through the rain, their clothes soaked.

After waiting for further direction, they headed closer to the runway, where firefighters, paramedics, and other emergency personnel sprang into action, checking passengers for injuries. Suffering from minor scratches and bruises, Garcia was taken to the hospital, where she underwent X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) before returning home that night.

She said the compassion shown to her by emergency personnel affirmed her desire to be a police officer. She has a flight home booked for Friday.

“I didn’t think I would be able to get back on a flight, but I have experienced the worst,” Garcia said. “So now, whatever happens, it’s meant to happen.”

(Reporting by Julia Love and Daina Beth Solomon; writing by Julia Love; editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

At least 10 killed by wildfires in California wine country

A DC-10 aircraft drops fire retardant on a wind driven wildfire in Orange, California, U.S., October 9, 2017.

By Marc Vartabedian

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (Reuters) – A spate of wildfires fanned by strong winds swept through northern California’s wine country on Monday, leaving at least 10 people dead, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and chasing some 20,000 people from their dwellings.

The deaths marked the first wildfire-related fatalities in California this year, according to state officials, and are believed to represent the largest loss of life from a single incident or cluster blazes in the state in about a decade.

Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties, encompassing some of the state’s prime wine-making areas, as the blazes raged unchecked and engulfed the region in thick, billowing smoke that drifted south into the San Francisco Bay area.

He later extended the declaration to include four more northern California counties and Orange County in Southern California.

An aerial photo of the devastation left behind from the North Bay wildfires north of San Francisco, California, October 9, 2017. California Highway

An aerial photo of the devastation left behind from the North Bay wildfires north of San Francisco, California, October 9, 2017. California Highway Patrol/Golden Gate Division/Handout via REUTERS

Sonoma County bore the brunt of the fatalities, with seven fire-related deaths confirmed there, according to the sheriff’s department. Two others died in Napa County and one more in Mendocino County, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).

Details on the circumstances of those deaths were not immediately available from either CalFire or local officials. But KGO-TV in San Francisco, citing unnamed California Highway Patrol officials, described one of the victims as a blind, elderly woman found dead in the driveway of her home in Santa Rosa, a town in Sonoma County.

Two hospitals were forced to evacuate in Sonoma County, state officials said.

Thousands of firefighters battled wind gusts in excess of 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) that have rapidly spread 15 separate wildfires across some 73,000 acres in northern California since erupting late Sunday night, according to CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant.

About 1,500 homes and commercial buildings have been destroyed throughout the region, Ken Pimlott, director of CalFire, said at a news conference.

A separate wildfire on Monday torched at least a half-dozen homes in the affluent Anaheim Hills neighborhood of Southern California’s Orange County, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents there, authorities said.

Firefighters work to put out hot spots on a fast moving wind driven wildfire in Orange, California, U.S., October 9, 2017.

Firefighters work to put out hot spots on a fast moving wind driven wildfire in Orange, California, U.S., October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

That blaze erupted along a freeway off-ramp and spread quickly in gusty winds to scorch at least 4,000 acres (1,600 hectares) in a matter of hours, fire officials said.

Still, the fire in Orange County paled in comparison to one of the fiercer blazes in northern California, the so-called Tubbs fire, which by mid morning had scorched about 25,000 acres (10,117 hectares) in Napa and Sonoma counties, an area world-famous for its vineyards.

One evacuee, John Van Dyke, recalled standing in his pajamas near the 101 Freeway in Santa Rosa, watching a hillside in flames from the Tubbs Fire, when police pounded on his door in the mobile home park early on Monday, telling him to flee.

“When I got in the car to leave, a whole section of the mobile park was in flames,” he said. “It scared the hell out of me.” At least 5,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders in Santa Rosa alone, accounting for about a quarter of the region’s residents displaced by the fires.

San Francisco authorities issued an air quality alert due to smoke from the fires, which residents said they could smell since early in the morning.

“You can’t see anything, the smoke is very dense,” Fred Oliai, 47, owner of the Alta Napa Valley Winery, told Reuters by telephone. He said he has not been able to get close enough to his vineyards since he was evacuated to see if flames reached his 90-acre property.

In addition to potential damage to vineyards from fire itself, experts say sustained exposure to heavy smoke can taint unharvested grapes, and Oliai said wine makers in the area are nervous.

“We got our grapes in last week, but others still have grapes hanging,” he said.

The region threatened by fires overlaps an area accounting for roughly 12 percent of California’s overall wine production by volume but also where its most highly valued grapes are grown, said Anita Oberholster, a professor of viticulture and enology at the University of California at Davis.

So far this year, some 7,700 wildfires in California have burned about 780,000 acres statewide as of Sunday, CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

About a dozen people lost their lives in a series of fires that swept San Diego County and other parts of Southern California in October 2007. Ten people perished the following August in the Iron Alps Fire Complex in northern California’s Trinity County, including nine killed in a helicopter crash.

 

(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Keith Coffman in Denver and Gina Cherelus and Joseph Ax in New York; Writing Alex Dobuzinskis and Steve Gorman; Editing by Tom Brown and Diane Craft)

 

Out-of-control California wildfire grows, forces schools to close

Firefighters prepare hose lines to attempt to hold a road during the Pilot Fire near Silverwood Lake in San Bernardino county near Hesperia, California, U.S.

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A wildfire burning out of control in mountains and foothills east of Los Angeles mushroomed more than 50 percent overnight, forcing authorities to order three school districts to cancel classes due to heavy smoke and dangerous conditions.

More than 900 firefighters were battling the so-called Pilot Fire, which has charred some 7,500 acres of bone-dry tinder and brush in the San Bernardino Mountains since it broke out around noon on Sunday.

“We feel it is in the best interest of safety that we keep our students and staff at home,” the Silver Valley Unified School District, which oversees nine schools in Mojave Desert, said in a statement on its website.

Also closing campuses on Tuesday were the Apple Valley and Hesperia school districts in those high desert communities some 90 miles east of Los Angeles.

More than 5,000 homes were under evacuation orders from the Pilot Fire, a highway and several roads were closed and smoke advisories were issued for the Mojave Desert area, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

No homes had been destroyed but Cal Fire said the blaze was only 6 percent contained as of Tuesday morning.

Some 400 miles to the north, the famed Highway 1 along the California coast was reopened to residents, one day after authorities were forced to close it in both directions due to the threat from the Soberanes Fire.

That blaze, which erupted on July 22, has already blackened 67,000 acres in the Big Sur area, destroying 57 homes and 11 outbuildings.

A bulldozer operator died on July 26 when his tractor rolled over as he helped property owners battle the flames, the sixth wildfire fatality in California this year.

Authorities have traced origins of the blaze to an illegal campfire left unattended in a state park about a mile from Highway 1. No arrests have been made so far.

As of Monday, more than 4,800 firefighters battling the flames had cut containment lines around 50 percent of its perimeter.

Firefighters are making gradual progress against the blaze as wildfire season in the western United States reaches its traditional peak, intensified by prolonged drought and extreme summer heat across California.

The conflagration is one of 35 major wildfires that have charred half a million acres in 12 states, mostly in the West, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by David Gregorio)