Death toll climbs as fires continue to rage in US

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At least 31 people have died as wildfires continue to rage across the West Coast of the United States.

Authorities are expecting yet more fatalities. Oregon’s emergency management director said officials were preparing for a possible “mass fatality event”.

Meanwhile, smoke from the wildfires is posing a health hazard to millions. Firefighters continue to battle the deadly blazes, which have already obliterated some towns and displaced tens of thousands of people.

Oregon, Washington and California

More than 40,000 people in Oregon have already been evacuated. Moreover, about 500,000 are in different levels of evacuation zones, having been told either to leave or to prepare to leave, governor Kate Brown said.

More than 1,500 square miles have burned in Oregon during recent days. This is nearly double the size of a typical year and an area larger than Rhode Island, authorities said.

In Washington state, the land burned in just the past five days amounted to the state’s second-worst fire season, after 2015, governor Jay Inslee noted. Inslee said:

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This is not an act of God.

This has happened because we have changed the climate.

Diminishing winds and rising humidity helped firefighters battling deadly blazes in Oregon and California
Diminishing winds and rising humidity helped firefighters battling deadly blazes in Oregon and California (Gillian Flaccus/AP)

And in California, 16,000 firefighters were battling 28 major wildfires across the state. Although 24 were sparked on Thursday 10 September and quickly contained.

In all, 22 people have died in California since wildfires began breaking out across the state in mid-August.

Donald Trump will visit California on Monday 14 September for a briefing on the West Coast fires, the White House announced.

Firefighters monitor a controlled burn in California
Firefighters monitor a controlled burn in California (Nic Coury/AP)

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and the governors of California, Oregon and Washington state – all Democrats – have said the fires are a consequence of global warming. Biden said:

We absolutely must act now to avoid a future defined by an unending barrage of tragedies like the one American families are enduring across the West today.

Air quality

Smoke created cooler conditions in California and Oregon. However, it was also blamed for making the dirtiest air in at least 35 years in some places.

The air quality index reading on the morning of 12 September in Salem, Oregon’s capital, was 512. The scale normally goes from zero to 500.

“Above 500 is literally off the charts” said Laura Gleim, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Downtown Los Angeles and Dodger Stadium are shrouded in smoke from the Bobcat and the El Dorado fires
Downtown Los Angeles and Dodger Stadium are shrouded in smoke from the Bobcat and the El Dorado fires (Keith Birmingham/The Orange County Register/AP)

Because past air quality was rarely so poor, the government’s yardstick for measuring it capped out at 500, Gleim said. The department started monitoring in 1985.

Rare desert-like conditions on the coast

The weather conditions that led up to the fires and fed the flames were likely a once-in-a-generation event, said Greg Jones, professor and research climatologist at Linfield University in Oregon.

A large, high-pressure area stretching from the desert Southwest to Alaska brought strong winds from the east towards the West Coast. This reduced relative humidity to as low as 8%, bringing desert-like conditions even to the coast, Jones said.

Instead of the offshore flows that the Pacific Northwest normally enjoys, the strong easterly winds pushed fires down the western slopes of the Cascade Range.

A warmer world can increase the likelihood of extreme events and contribute to their severity, Jones said. Although he said it’s not clear if global warming caused the conditions.

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