Firefighters on the US West Coast reported further progress in the battle against wildfires that have killed more than 30 people and devastated entire communities. But most of the region is surrounded by a thick layer of smoke that has now affected large swaths of the country.
Buoyed by improved weather, Oregon firefighting crews Tuesday gained more ground in the face of wildfires that have burned a million acres and destroyed hundreds of homes in the state.
The death toll from the fires in the state appears to be eight, the Oregonian newspaper reported, after the mayor’s department in Jackson County reduced the number of confirmed deaths there by two. State officials said they were still working to confirm the change.
Thousands of residents are still being evacuated in shelters and hotel rooms, and 22 people are still missing, according to the Oregon State Office of Emergency Management.
Meanwhile, exhausting smoke continues to stifle the area, with Portland’s air quality rated among the worst in the world.
The clouds of smoke have grown so large that they “block out the sun” and Cooling temperatures As far away as the East Coast, according to the Baltimore Washington National Weather Service.
Did you notice the sky looks like milk? What you see is smoke from wildfires in the western United States being carried to New England by the jet stream. There are no effects expected in our area other than a foggy sky. Below is a sample smoke column animation. #MEwx #Hahaha pic.twitter.com/U6QSg7q3Fp
– NWS Gray (NWSGray) 15th September 2020
Smoke prompted Alaska Airlines, along with its regional airline, Horizon Air, to suspend all flights to and from Portland, Oregon and Spokane in Washington and several smaller airports until Tuesday afternoon.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality said residents should expect conditions to persist, with an air quality alert in place until at least Thursday.
“I grew up in Oregon and lived here for a long time, and to see this massive smoke of this long and wide spread, really stands out in the state’s history,” said Dylan Darling, a state spokesman.
A growing body of research paints a bleak picture of the effects of wildfire smoke on the human body. “Smoke from wildfires can affect health almost immediately,” Dr. Jiayun Angela Yao, an environmental health researcher in Canada, told the Guardian earlier this month. Yao co-authored a study for the University of British Columbia this summer showing that within an hour of bushfire smoke descending on the Vancouver area during recent wildfire seasons, the number of ambulance calls for asthma, chronic lung disease and cardiac events increased by 10%.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday asked for a presidential disaster to be declared for her state, arguing that it would provide much-needed resources for response and recovery efforts. Oregon is strong. Oregon is resilient. “To fight fires of this scale, we need all the help we can get,” Brown said in a press release.
In California, 16,600 firefighters battled 25 fires on Tuesday after they largely extinguished two fires on Monday. More than 20 people have died in bushfires in the state since mid-August, when the fire season began early with a barrage of dry lightning.
The climate crisis has become a flashpoint in the fires. Donald Trump, who visited California on Monday, has largely ignored the scientific consensus that climate change plays a major role in the disaster and revived his claim that poor forest management is often to blame.
While forest management and fire suppression are part of the problem, scientists say it is clear that global warming is playing a role in fire disasters, with drier weather conditions and hotter landscapes across the West being more vulnerable to burning.
On Tuesday, Kamala Harris toured the fire damage in California, which continues to suffer from unprecedented inferno and terrible air quality.
Harris and Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, toured the area around Pine Ridge Elementary School in Aubry, in the Fresno District, which was severely damaged by the devastating Creek Fire. Speaking at the site, Harris praised the firefighters who worked on controlling the fires, saying, “It is our duty, in terms of leading our nation, to take seriously these new changes in our climate, and to do what we can to mitigate the damage.”
Harris said the chimneys of the burning buildings “remind me of gravestones”. Next to it, Newsom indicated it was “snow ash.”
Harris did not mention Trump by name, but said that ideology should not play a role in the response to forest fires and the climate crisis.
Dean Gould, a forest superintendent in the Sierra National Forest, says officials have not seen a more violent fire in the area.
On Monday, Donald Trump visited California, ignoring the scientific consensus that climate change plays a major role in the disaster, and revived his claim that poor forest management is often the cause.
Scientists say global warming is clearly playing a role in fire disasters, as warmer, drier atmospheric conditions have left landscapes across the West more vulnerable to burning.
The rulers of the West Coast in recent days have enthusiastically appealed to the country to acknowledge the impact of climate change. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee argued this weekend that wildfires should be renamed “climate fires” and described climate change as “a flame of fire over our states in the West.” Brown described the fires as “truly pioneering climate change on the West Coast”.
“The debate over climate change is over,” Newsom said. “Just come to California.”