2017 wildfire season in US West far worse than expected
A wet winter and spring in the Western U.S. brought predictions that the 2017 wildfire season would be mild. It was anything but. It ended up one of the worst in U.S. history in land burned.
The smoke, the flames, the aching lungs, the evacuations. They’re summertime facts of life in the U.S. West, where every wildfire season competes with memories of previous destruction.
The foliage that sprouted from previous rain and snow has gone bone-dry in intense heat, feeding flames in places that have not seen downpours in months and strangling cities with smoke.
The biggest fires came a little later than usual in some states, after Labor Day, when the fire season traditionally starts to peter out.
A look at the fires:
It’s been weeks since Maryjane Carlson has been able to relax.
The artist lives in Brookings, a small city along the southern Oregon coast that’s threatened by one of the nation’s largest wildfires. Carlson and her neighbors never know when the blaze is going to move closer to the wooded town.
“It’s overwhelming,” she said Wednesday. “It’s kind of like living in a war zone.”
In addition to the fear of the flames, smoke never leaves. An asthmatic, Carlson had to buy an air purifier and sometimes covers her face with a mask.
Thousands of residents have evacuated as firefighters battle blazes statewide, including one devastating hiking trails and waterfalls in the scenic Columbia River Gorge.
Officials expect the fire near Brookings to burn for at least another month. The weather is a wild card in a region accustomed to rain and fog. If it’s hot and dry, it will be a scary September.
“We don’t know what the weather’s going to do, and half the problem is that uncertainty,” Carlson said.
Darinda Yoder wishes she had not waited so long to evacuate her home near Montana’s border with Canada.
If she had left earlier, she would not have the terrifying memory of flames rushing down a mountain toward the state’s oldest Amish community this weekend.
“The fire came down so fast they almost didn’t get us out,” Yoder told the Missoulian newspaper. “I don’t think it would have affected me the way it is now if I’d not seen the fire.”
It has burned 10 homes and 30 other buildings and threatened a community on the western shore of Lake Koocanusa on Wednesday. Some 187 residents have fled West Kootenai, with most staying with families on the lake’s eastern shore or in recreational vehicles.
It’s among dozens of fires that have forced people from their homes, destroyed residences and filled the sky with smoke for months statewide.
Local recreationists and tourists mourned damage to popular hiking trails and campsites from a wildfire near Mount Rainier National Park.
It more than doubled in size to 68 square miles and closed all backcountry trails on the east side of the iconic park.
Steffen Rausch told Seattle news station KIRO-TV that he was saddened the fire closed 70 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Canada to Mexico, near Mount Rainier.
“Because if you are going to do PCT, you want to do as much of the PCT as you can,” said Rausch, a German who had hiked from the Mexico border to Washington.
Rangers worked to alert hikers to leave the area. Some campers were told to have their gear packed.
Smoke swathed areas from Seattle to Spokane, where the air Wednesday was rated as hazardous.
Catholic nuns living at the Monastery of St. Gertrude can normally see across an entire prairie to the Bitterroot Mountains.
But they were hard-pressed Wednesday to see the road leading to the monastery in the city of Cottonwood amid heavy smoke.
“Everything is just a big haze,” Sister Placida Wemhoff said. “Our eyes smart and sting.”
Cottonwood had the unwanted distinction of having the worst air quality in the nation for much of Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency said.
Wemhoff would normally be putting the flowerbeds to rest for the winter but had to halt the work. Most of the nuns are older and particularly at risk from the hazardous air quality.
“The sisters are trying to avoid heavy work where you puff and pant,” Wemhoff said.
Idaho’s largest wildfire is being allowed to burn in a rugged wilderness area. Authorities say they plan to protect bridges, a ranch, and other high-value sites that could be threatened by the 110-square-mile blaze.
Nearly 200 homes in a high-end neighborhood nestled in the foothills near a northern Utah canyon were evacuated Wednesday as crews battled a blaze that has burned three houses.
Calmer winds allowed firefighters to stop the 1-square-mile fire from spreading toward more homes in the city of Ogden, said Rachelle Handley of the U.S. Forest Service.
Mark Archer said he and his wife received texts about a mandatory evacuation Tuesday and drove home from their jobs in a panic because they had left their 18-year-old son sleeping. He had already left because of the heavy smoke, so Archer and his wife grabbed their pets and important documents.
They were back to their house that evening, which smelled like a campfire. Warned that high winds could trigger another evacuation, Archer and his family had bags packed.
He set his alarm to look out the window every two hours.
“It’s still scary to go home in case it picks up with high winds,” said Archer, 56, adding his lungs and eyes stung Wednesday. “All I can do is just hope and pray.”
Twenty large blazes burned across the state, including one outside Yosemite National Park that moved through ancient sequoia trees and another that burned five homes in Los Angeles.
A big Labor Day weekend wildfire in the LA suburb of Burbank was reduced to a black scar but remained dangerous. It had burned near 1,400 homes.
“We are not out of the woods yet,” Fire Department spokesman Erik Scott said of the potential for hotspots.
In Northern California, centers with air purifiers have opened and some schools have suspended classes as smoke from several wildfires fills the air. Dr. Donald Baird, health officer of far northern Humboldt County, urged people to stay indoors to give their lungs a break.
In neighboring Trinity County, a fire on both sides of a river was expanding north toward another fire after destroying 72 homes and forcing about 2,000 people to evacuate.
Outside Yosemite, crews gained ground against a blaze that burned halfway through a grove of 2,700-year-old giant sequoias. Officials said it had not killed any trees, which can withstand low-intensity fires.
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