More than 60 wildfires were burning across at least 10 states in the parched American west on Tuesday, with the largest, in Oregon, consuming an area nearly twice the size of Portland.
The fires have torched homes and forced thousands to evacuate from Alaska to Wyoming, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Arizona, Idaho and Montana accounted for more than half of the large active fires.
The fires erupted as the west was in the grip of the second bout of dangerously high temperatures in just a few weeks. A major drought, exacerbated by the climate crisis, is contributing to conditions that make fires even more dangerous, scientists say.
The National Weather Service says the heatwave appeared to have peaked in many areas, and excessive-heat warnings were largely expected to expire by Tuesday. However, they continued into Tuesday night in some California deserts, and many areas were still expected to see highs in the 80s and 90s.
In northern California, a combined pair of lightning-ignited blazes dubbed the Beckwourth Complex is now 46% contained, according to an incident report. Firefighters spent days battling flames that were fueled by winds, hot weather and low humidity that sapped the moisture from vegetation. Evacuation orders were in place for more than 3,000 residents of remote northern areas and neighboring Nevada.
There were reports of burned homes, but damage was still being tallied. The blaze had consumed 140 sq miles (362 sq km) of land, including in Plumas national forest.
A fire that began on Sunday in the Sierra Nevada south of Yosemite national park exploded over 14 sq miles (36 sq km) and was just 10% contained.
The largest fire in the US lay across the California border in south-western Oregon. The Bootleg fire – which doubled and doubled again over the weekend – threatened some 2,000 homes, state fire officials said. It had burned at least seven homes and more than 40 other buildings.
Tim McCarley told KPTV-TV that he and his family were ordered to flee their home on Friday with flames just minutes behind them.
“They told us to get the hell out ’cause if not, you’re dead,” he said.
He described the blaze as “like a firenado” with flames leaping dozens of feet into the air and jumping around, catching trees “and then just explosions, boom, boom, boom, boom”.
The fire was burning in the Fremont-Winema national forest, near the Klamath county town of Sprague River. It had ravaged an area of about 240 sq miles (621 sq km), or nearly twice the size of Portland. Firefighters hadn’t managed to surround any of it as they struggled to build containment lines.
The fire drastically disrupted service on three transmission lines providing up to 5,500 megawatts of electricity to California, and California’s power grid operator has repeatedly asked for voluntary power conservation during evening hours.
Elsewhere, a forest fire started during lightning storms in southeast Washington grew to 86 sq miles (223 sq km). It was 20% contained on Monday.
Another fire west of Winthrop closed the scenic North Cascades Highway, the most northern route through the Cascade Range. The road provides access to North Cascades national park and the Ross Lake national recreation area.
In Idaho, the national guard has been mobilized to help fight twin lightning-sparked fires that have together charred nearly 24 sq miles (62 sq km) of dry timber in the remote, drought-stricken region.
In total, there are 67 active large fires in the US, which have burned more than 1,434 sq miles, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. More than 14,200 wildland firefighters, as well as support personnel, are assigned to fire incidents, the center says.
There has been a dramatic increase year-to-date in 2021 compared to 2020. From 1 January to 13 July of 2021, there have been 33,953 fires, compared with 27,770 in the same period of 2020, the center says.
The July heatwave follows an unusual June siege of broiling temperatures in the west and comes amid worsening drought conditions throughout the region.
Scientists say human-caused climate breakdown and decades of fire suppression that increases fuel loads have aggravated fire conditions across the region.