Scores of major wildfires were raging virtually unchecked across the West on Tuesday as an unrelenting heat wave and historic drought turned a wide swath of the nation into tinder.
The 67 blazes had consumed 1,434 square miles of mostly timber and brush, but an undetermined number of homes have burned and thousands have been threatened. More than 14,200 wildland firefighters and support personnel were battling the fires as of Tuesday.
“The excessive heat wave in parts of the West continues to linger with potentially a few record high temperatures today in portions of California and Nevada,” the National Weather Service said Tuesday.
Heat will only make things worse for fire crews as high temperatures remain above average through the week and widespread readings soar to the 90s and 100s, AccuWeather said. Temperatures will only increase over the weekend and into next week, forecasters said.
Through Monday, more than 33,000 fires had scorched 2 million acres across the nation, the most fires through that date in a decade, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
That’s an area larger than the state of Delaware.
The largest fire in the country was burning in southwestern Oregon near the California border. The Bootleg Fire was disrupting service on three transmission lines providing up to 5,500 megawatts of electricity to California. California’s power grid operator has asked for voluntary power conservation during evening hours.
Eight fires raged in California. Blazes also were burning in Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado, Minnesota and Alaska amid a week of heat warnings, record-smashing temperatures and regional drought.
The Bootleg Fire had burned at least seven homes and more than 40 other buildings. The blaze has raced through 315 square miles, and 2,000 homes remained threatened, state fire officials said.
“Conditions were so extreme that firefighters needed to disengage and move to predetermined safety zones,” the U.S. Forest Service said in an incident report. “Fire managers evaluated conditions and looked for opportunities to reengage firefighters safely.”
Tim McCarley told KPTV-TV his family was ordered to flee their home with flames just minutes behind them.
“They told us to get the hell out, because if not, you’re dead,” he said.
He described the blaze as “like a firenado”: flames leaping dozens of feet into the air and jumping around, catching trees “and then just explosions, boom, boom, boom, boom.”
The Klamath County, Oregon, Sheriff’s Office began to issue citations and urged residents in mandatory evacuation areas to leave immediately, saying officers would “make arrests if necessary” to keep people out.
“People have been advised to evacuate over the last several days, some have not listened and continue to travel within the restricted area,” the incident report said. “This violates the closure restrictions and interferes with firefighting and lifesaving efforts.”
In Northern California, a combined pair of lightning-ignited blazes dubbed the Beckwourth Complex was 46% surrounded after days of battling flames fueled by winds, hot weather and low humidity that sapped moisture from vegetation. Evacuation orders were in place for more than 3,000 residents of remote northern areas and neighboring Nevada.
In Washington, more than 1,250 square miles burned in 2020, and experts say this year could be worse. The Batterman Road Fire and Asotin Complex Fire have consumed more than 100 square miles.
“It doesn’t take much for us to have a major catastrophic event,” Department of Natural Resources Fuels Analyst Vaugn Cork told KREM-TV. “This could be catastrophic.”
In Idaho, Gov. Brad Little mobilized the National Guard to help fight twin lightning-sparked fires that have together charred nearly 24 square miles of dry timber in the remote, drought-stricken region.
Contributing: Elinor Aspegren, USA TODAY; The Associated Press