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Fires are forcing hundreds of evacuations in the south and western United States.
Wildfire season is in full blaze in several western states, prompting hundreds of evacuations as firefighters try to contain fires that have consumed upwards of 100,000 acres in Colorado, Oregon, and California. Smaller or more contained fires are also burning in Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Idaho.
On Friday morning, a wildfire just north of Los Angeles, California grew to more than 11,000 acres with 12% of it contained. The blaze, known as the Lake Fire due to its origin around Lake Hughes, has prompted more than 100 evacuations and threatens more than 5,000 structures.
The fire began in an area about 50 acres in size in the afternoon on Wednesday and within two hours of being reported had spread to about 10,000 acres. Much of the western United States is expecting a heat wave this weekend, which may make containment efforts more difficult as firefighters battle not only the Lake Fire, but also several other fires in the area. The Ranch Fire, just east of Los Angeles, has burned 2,500 acres so far and is 0% contained; the nearby Apple Fire has burned over 33,000 acres and is 90% contained.
The LA County Fire Department on Thursday said that “hot air temperatures in the 90s to 100s, lower relative humidities, and drying fuels will bring elevated fire weather conditions.” Angeles National Forest fire chief Robert Garcia said that the Lake Fire “will be a major fire for several days.”
Already, the acreage consumed by the Lake Fire has surpassed some of the largest California wildfires of the 2019 season, when there were 6,872 fire incidents. The Saddle Ridge Fire burned around 8,800 acres in Los Angeles County in October of last year and the Maria Fire burned around 10,000 acres in Ventura County in the same month. The largest blaze of the 2019 season was the Kincade Fire, which burned over 77,700 acres in northern California and damaged at least 374 structures.
Two 2018 blazes still hold the records for the largest fire in state history and the most deadly. The Mendocino Complex Fire burned 410,000 acres in July of that year, and the Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed 18,800 structures in November.
Current fires in neighboring western states have also prompted evacuations this week. The Mosier Creek Fire, which began on Wednesday in central Oregon, has evacuated at least 564 homes. The fire has grown at a rapid pace due to “winds and warmer temperatures,” according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.
Three concurrently burning fires in Colorado are challenging that state’s firefighting resources. The Pine Gulch Fire is the largest, burning more than 73,000 acres since July 31 with only 7% containment. The nearby Grizzly Creek Fire experienced “rapid and erratic growth” on Thursday and has so far burned more than 14,000 acres and forced interstate closures. The Cameron Peak Fire further north in the state has grown to 2,000 acres.
The Pine Gulch and Grizzly Creek fires are proving particularly difficult to contain due to “critically dry fuels, severe drought conditions, [and] critical fire weather.” Nearly 900 firefighters are working to contain them. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis visited the incident command on Friday morning to say that more help would be coming soon. "I was actually just informed that the Grizzly Creek Fire is the top fire priority in the nation right now, " he said. "So resources are coming from around the country."
The coronavirus pandemic creates additional challenges for firefighters. In Oregon, crews are working in a “module of one” method, which keeps firefighters in units that don’t interact with each other. “Covid-19 proves to be a new challenge in regard to fighting large fires, but the commanders are committed to keeping everyone safe and minimizing the potential for Covid-19 spread,” the Oregon Department of Forestry told residents on Friday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that during the fire season firefighters “make an effort to operate and isolate as a unit” and when possible “not interchange personnel or equipment between units.”
Evacuation sites also look different during the pandemic. Evacuees of the Lake Fire in California were directed to a local high school where, due to coronavirus restrictions, they were asked to remain in their vehicles in the parking lot rather than come inside.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown last week asked residents to be vigilant in forest fire prevention efforts, particularly around campfires, so as to keep all residents of the state safe. “It’s especially important we do our part to support our wildfire crews this year,” she tweeted, “as they face threats on two fronts this season: fighting fires and preventing the spread of Covid-19 in firefighters' camps.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.