Extreme fire behavior — difficult to predict and dangerous to fight — has been the watchword for the year. And these fires are menacing more lives and property.
TROUTDALE, Ore. — Some fires suddenly exploded in size. One in Montana doubled in 24 hours, charring 78 square miles overnight — an area bigger than Brooklyn. Already burning fires started new ones, shooting embers like artillery barrages, including one that apparently jumped several miles across the Columbia River into Washington from Oregon, breaching a natural firebreak that long seemed impregnable.
Extreme fire behavior — difficult to predict and dangerous to fight — has been the watchword of the 2017 season across the West. More large, uncontrolled wildfires were burning in 10 Western states in early September than at any comparable time since 2006.
And those fires have leaned in, menacing more lives and property, by their size and their proximity, than in any recent season. Two firefighters died in Montana, and dozens of buildings and homes have been destroyed in California. About 150 hikers had to be rescued in Oregon when a fire encircled them. Evacuation orders — residents told to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice — reached to within 15 miles of downtown Portland. One of the largest fires ever recorded in Los Angeles County roared down from a canyon near Burbank, leapt a highway and forced hundreds of residents, from Burbank into Los Angeles itself, from their homes.
For Jerry and Cheri Brown, the disturbing and surprising contours of the season hit home this month when they stepped outside their motor home, which was parked on the banks of the Columbia River, where they were volunteering as hosts at a campground about an hour east of Portland.
It was raining fire, or close to it, they said. Small sticks and pine cones, smoking and still too hot to touch, were landing around them, whirled there by winds blasting from the Eagle Creek fire just to the east near Multnomah Falls, a place that has not seen a major wildfire in living memory.
Then, as they looked toward the Cascade Range slopes that rise steeply from the river, they saw the fire surge toward them through the Douglas fir, cedar and hemlock.
“I looked at her and she said, ‘Go now,’ ” said Mr. Brown, 74, a retired truck assembly worker, describing the scramble of their escape. “Scariest thing I’ve ever seen,” Ms. Brown added, standing alongside her husband in an evacuation camp across the river in Washington.
From California to Utah and Montana, thousands of others have also been forced to flee, and evacuation orders were still in place late last week for 23 active fires in four states, with nearly 21,000 firefighters in the field across the region.
Still, at least so far, the year is not a record, with 8.3 million acres burned as of mid-September. More than 10 million acres burned in 2015, the worst fire season in decades. But much of that land, as in previous years, was far from population centers, in remote areas of Alaska or western rangelands.
In stark contrast, this year’s fires are licking at people’s back doors or, in some cases, consuming the doors altogether. While some of that is because the fires are closer to major cities, there is another factor.
“As the West becomes more and more populated, we’re seeing more and more homes being built in these areas; the baby boomers retire and they’re building these homes all over, in natural parts of the landscape,” said Jessica Gardetto, a spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Land Management. “We’re going to see more summers like this.”
Closer proximity to fire also means more bad air, as well as danger. Winds sent choking smoke from the fires into urban areas from Denver to Southern California. Seattle and Boise, Idaho, have already had more days of “unhealthy” air this year, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency — many of those in the last few weeks — than in any year since 2007. Visiting college football coaches have worried about how the smoke might affect the performances of their players.
Changes in forest management have also fanned the flames, specialists say. Many areas of the West — where timber cutting has declined and even the thinning of trees for fire safety is sometimes contested by conservation groups — are choked with younger smaller trees that can burn readily, patches of thick undergrowth or blighted areas where insects or disease have left dead trees standing in place.
“There’s just a lot of stuff to burn,” said Janean Creighton, an associate professor of forest ecosystems and society at Oregon State University.
The devastation at places like the Columbia Gorge here in Oregon, which is a treasured hiking spot for Pacific Northwest residents, has also created a deeper emotional impact, Professor Creighton said, especially coming as the nation has been slammed with hurricane disasters in Texas and Florida.
“People that might not necessarily think about the fire season that much are really getting hit with the reality,” Professor Creighton said. The damage, she added, “is much more social this year than ecological, if that makes sense.”
Shifting patterns in Western climate and weather also caught forecasters off guard.
Early models of the fire season said that last winter’s big mountain snows, which lasted deep into summer in higher elevations, would probably keep many places damp. But then a severe heat wave settled in over a vast area from Montana to Northern California and across the Pacific Northwest, and some places went more than 100 days with no measurable rainfall. Most of Montana is suffering an extended drought. The heat and drought dried out grasses and shoots that had been nourished by the winter snows, turning them into tinder.
“The long-range weather models that we had through the spring and toward summer, they were just flat-out wrong,” said Bryan Henry, a meteorologist at the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates wildfire response. What forecasters predicted, based on experience, “was completely the opposite of what actually happened.”
In places like Garfield County, in Montana’s northeast corner, people were on their own as fires roared through, before government agencies could arrive.
Mary Brown, who runs about 1,400 cattle in Garfield, said neighbors gathered on her ranch as the fire approached, and managed to save her home and barn by surrounding the buildings with pickup trucks saddled with water tanks, generators and hoses.
The youngest to help was 12, she said. They sprayed the grass as the fire roared around them. “People literally put themselves in harm’s way to save the ranches,” said her brother-in-law, Colter Brown.
Oregon has also been at the bull’s-eye of the season’s fury, with nearly a third of large active fires in the nation burning here as of late last week.
That one of the biggest of those fires, in the Columbia Gorge near Multnomah Falls west of Portland, is believed to have been caused by humans — the result of teenagers playing with fireworks, fire officials said — has made the hurt worse for many people. Heat, drought, wind and a changing climate prepared the scene, but carelessness pushed the button. Multnomah Falls is one of the most visited tourist spots in the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s kind of like a family member has died,” said Maggie Rose, who lives in Troutdale with her husband, Don.
The fate and future of the extensive trail system through the Columbia Gorge — the Pacific Crest Trail from Canada to Mexico also passes through the fire zone — is uncertain for now. Erosion from rain and snowmelt is now the risk there, with the great threat looming not so much from fire, but from the winter and spring to come, with little undergrowth to hold the soil in place.
“It’ll be a long road back,” said Steve Kruger, the executive director of Trailkeepers of Oregon, a hiking and trail advocacy group.
But the wave of disasters unfolding around the nation and the world in recent weeks also put the Western fires in context for many people. The loss of life has been relatively low, and so has the devastation to cities and towns. Other places in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean are suffering more from hurricane damage, or in Mexico from the strong earthquake off the Pacific Coast.
Jeanette Denmark, 58, who lives in Boring, Ore., southeast of Portland, has family members in Houston and near Orlando, and she held her breath as the various disasters unfolded. But the fires missed Boring, she said, and her family members elsewhere were also fine.
“We got lucky,” she said, as she smoked a cigarette on the street, a break from her job in Troutdale.