Firefighters in the western United States faced “another critical day” as thunderstorms set fires near two towns not far from where the Dixie Fire in California last week devastated many historic communities.
The thunderstorms, which began on Friday, did not bring heavy rain, but did lightning strikes, forcing crews to focus on using bulldozers to build the lines and preventing the fire from reaching Westwood.
On August 5, eviction orders were issued for the city of 1,700 residents.
Wind gusts of up to 80 kilometers per hour (50 mph) pushed the fire closer to another town called Janesville, home to about 1,500 residents, Jake Cagle, chief of operations for the Eastern Fire District.
“A very difficult day out there yesterday afternoon and night (the crew) picked up the pieces and tried to secure the tire as best they could with the resources they had,” he told a news conference on Saturday.
With similar forecasts of thunderstorms on Saturday, Cagle said, firefighters faced “another critical and challenging day.”
The fire was one of more than 100 major wildfires that have burned in more than a dozen states in the western United States as a result of drought and hot, dry weather that has turned forests, grasslands, meadows, and pastures into thorns.
Last week, a fire devastated the historic city of Greenwood, forcing residents to flee as the blaze destroyed more than 1,000 homes and shops and damaged the downtown area.
The US Forest Service said Friday that it is operating in crisis mode, deploying full firefighters and strengthening its support system.
There are about 21,000 federal firefighters working on the ground, more than twice the number of firefighters dispatched around this time a year ago to contain the wildfires, said Anthony Scardina, deputy ranger for the Pacific Southwest.
More than 6,000 firefighters battled the Dixie Fire alone, which destroyed nearly 2,100 square kilometers (845 square miles) — an area the size of Tokyo — and contained 31 percent.
“The scale is unimaginable, the duration and the impact on these people, every one of us, including myself, is incredible,” Johnny Brookwood, a Greenville resident forced to flee bushfires, told The Associated Press from the third evacuation center.
The cause of the fire has not been determined. Pacific Gas & Electric said the fire may have started when a tree fell on its power line.
There was also a risk of new fires due to unsettled weather, including extreme heat in the northern half of the West and a chance of thunderstorms that could bring lightning to northern California, Oregon and Nevada, according to the Interagency National Fire Center.
A fast-moving fire broke out east of Salt Lake City, Utah, on Saturday afternoon, closing Interstate 80 and causing the evacuation of Summit Park, a mountain community of 6,600 people. Fire officials said the blaze engulfed an area of five square miles and threatened thousands of homes and power lines.
In southeastern Montana, firefighters spread as fires raged across vast grasslands, threatening the North Cheyenne Indian Reservation.
Peggy Miller, a spokeswoman for the Fire Department, said the fires were caused by the heat of the coal seams, which are coal deposits in the ground in the area. She added that the compulsory evacuation of the tribal city of Lam Deir is still in effect due to the poor air quality.
The smoke has also pushed air pollution in parts of Northern California, Oregon and Idaho to unhealthy or very unhealthy levels, according to the US Air Quality Index.
The hot, dry weather with strong afternoon winds also caused many fires across Washington state, and similar weather is expected this weekend, firefighters said.
Scientists have warned that climate change has made the western United States warmer and drier over the past 30 years, and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more destructive.
There are also dozens of fires in western Canada and Europe, including Greece, where massive wildfires have destroyed forests and set homes on fire.
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