As wildfires rage, leaders plead for ‘all the help we can get’

By The New York Times

The wildfires raging on the West Coast became an all but inescapable crisis around the country Tuesday, with at least 27 people dead in three states, fires and evacuations starting in Idaho, milky smoke clouding the skies over Michigan, and haze reaching as far as New York City.

In the states where the fires are burning worst — with more than 5 million acres charred so far in Oregon, California and Washington state — authorities were trying to adapt to a disaster with no clear end in sight, under conditions deeply exacerbated climate change.

The Bay Area, under a choking blanket of smoke for four weeks, set another record for consecutive warnings about hazardous air. The Oregon State Police established a mobile morgue as teams searched incinerated buildings for survivors and the dead. Alaska Airlines suspended flights out of Portland, Oregon, and Spokane, Washington, citing “thick smoke and haze.” And Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon requested a presidential disaster declaration, saying late Monday, “to fight fires of this scale, we need all the help we can get.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California met with President Donald Trump on Monday in McClellan Park, near Sacramento, thanking him for federal help and agreeing that forest management could be better — while also noting that only 3% of land in California is under state control, compared to 57% under federal control. The governors of all three states stressed that climate change had made fires more dangerous, drying forests with rising heat and priming them to burn, science that Monday the president denied.

“The rules of fighting wildfires are changing because our climate is changing,” Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington wrote in an open letter Monday. “There is no fire suppression plan on this planet that does anyone any good if it doesn’t even acknowledge the role of climate change.”

Addressing Trump directly, he wrote, “I hope you had an enlightening trip to the West Coast, where your refusal to address climate change — and your active steps to allow even more carbon pollution — will accelerate devastating wildfires like you are seeing today.”

Firefighters continued trying to contain the dozens of fires Tuesday morning. In California, the August Complex fire, which has burned more than 750,000 acres northwest of Sacramento, was contained to about 30%, and the Creek Fire northeast of Fresno, which has burned more than 200,000 acres, was contained about 16%.

In Oregon, tens of thousands of people were still under evacuation orders, and the Beachie Creek fire, east of Salem, grew to burn almost 200,000 acres.

Lakefront cottages are reduced to ash in a California community.

The North Complex Fire tore through the tiny California mountain community of Lake Madrone last week, reducing the pine-fringed shore, which was speckled with cottages and frequented by bears and otters, to bare black timbers and ash.

The community had spent years clearing fire breaks and removing forest debris to protect it from wildfire. But roaring winds, high temperatures and a fire storm that raced almost 20 miles in a few days smashed its defenses late last week and destroyed about half of the 130 houses.

“We hoped we had done enough,” said Scott Owen, a resident who lived by the lake. “After watching that fire I don’t think you can do enough. This fire moved like no one had seen before.”

On Monday evening, Sheriff Kory Honea of Butte County announced one additional victim of the fire, which has killed at least 15 people. He said that family members of some of those who died told deputies that the individuals had packed their bags and planned to evacuate but changed their minds based on false information that the fire was 50% contained.

Owen’s whole neighborhood burned to the ground in the blaze. One neighbor barely escaped, he said, and sheltered from the flames in a creek. On Monday the neighbors were still trying to account for everyone, hoping that authorities would not have to search the debris with cadaver dogs.

Though the flames have moved north, the residents of Lake Madrone have not been able to return yet. Owen, who has owned a house on the lake for decades, said he was not sure he would rebuild.

“I just think things have changed and we’re going to have more fires,” he said. “This is a record year — who knows where it goes from here.”

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