Newsom blames climate change for fires.
Governor says surge in historic amount of acreage that has burned this year can be attributed to inadequate policies
By Associated Press
Historic wildfires continued to rage across California on Friday with nightmarish abandon, toppling acreage records, clouding the skies with a dangerous smoky pall and prompting a rare outburst on climate change from Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Four smaller fires burning on the northern edge of Mendocino National Forest merged into the August Complex overnight, increasing its scope to nearly 750,000 acres — the biggest fire in California history by nearly 300,000 acres — and threatening communities from Lake Pillsbury to Covelo.
Visiting the fire lines in Oroville, where thick smoke hung like tule fog, the governor said decades of inadequate climate policy — along with the flat-out refusal from some politicians and residents to accept scientific evidence — have pushed California into the mounting tragedy it now faces.
Gov. Gavin Newsom talks to the media after touring the North Complex fire zone with California Secretary for Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot, left, and California Secretary for Environmental Protection Jared Blumenfeld on Friday. PAUL KITAGAKI JR. THE SACRAMENTO BEE VIA AP, POOL
“I’m exhausted that we have to continue to debate this,” Newsom said, in some of his strongest statements ever on the issue. “This is happening. It’s happening in unprecedented ways. Year in, year out. You can exhaust yourself with your ideological B.S. … but the reality here is the megafires that we’re experiencing come from these megadroughts that we’re experiencing.”
Already this year, wildfires have torn through about 3.1 million acres of California land — 26 times more than last year — and forced tens of thousands of residents to flee. Ten people have died in Butte County’s West Zone of the North Complex fire, bringing the state’s wildfire death toll for the year to 20.
The smoke was so thick in Oroville that it obscured the damage from the blaze. Burned, crumpled homes and melted cars became visible only upon driving right up to them, while the black skeletons of trees stood out sharply against the smoke.
Meanwhile in the Bay Area — where some residents only just returned to their homes after another set of blazes threatened the region a few weeks ago — unofficial air readings throughout the region hovered in the “unhealthy” zone, the worst readings of the week in many places. A Spare the Air alert issued by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District remained in effect for the 25th consecutive day, a streak that long ago shattered the previous most of 14, set during the Camp fire in 2018.
As awful as the smoke is for residents, it has actually proven useful for firefighters battling the Mendocino flames, said Kimberly Kaschalk, spokesperson for the Great Basin Incident Management Team that took command of the August Complex’s southern portion Friday.
Over the weekend, crews will evaluate damage and form tighter control lines near natural firefighting barriers such as the Eel and Black Butte rivers. The Lake Pillsbury area northeast of Ukiah has emerged as a priority, Kaschalk said, along with campgrounds between the Eel and the fire’s edge.
“I know a lot of people hate the smoke, but it helps us because it shields the ground from the direct rays of the sun,” Kaschalk said. “It helps bring the humidity up, and more moisture is better.”
By early next week, temperatures are expected to level off into the mid-70s while a gush of offshore wind blows off the smoke — providing a potential reprieve to both firefighters and smoke-choked Californians, according to the National Weather Service.
Newsom acknowledged the state could do more prescribed burns and forest management to reduce the dry-timber fuel propelling these fires. Last month, he signed a major agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to thin 1 million acres of forests in California — more than double the current rate — by 2025. The state also is doing much to address climate change, with about 34% of its electricity currently originating from solar, wind and other renewable resources.
Although he did not specify who, exactly, he meant by climate deniers, Newsom at one point criticized the federal government for rolling back environmental protections. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, though, he has been scrupulous at not singling out the Trump administration, whose help the state needs, for blame.
“California, folks, is America fast-forward,” Newsom said. “What we’re experiencing right here is coming to communities all across the United States of America unless we get our act together on climate change — unless we disabuse ourselves of all the B.S. being spewed by a very small group of people that have an ideological reason to advance the cause of a 19th century framework.”
Portland suburbs threatened
Hundreds of firefighters, aided by helicopters dropping fire retardant and water, battled two large wildfires that threatened to merge near the most populated part of Oregon, including the suburbs of Portland.
The number of people ordered to evacuate statewide because of fires rose to an estimated 500,000 — more than 10% of the state’s 4.2 million people, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management reported late Thursday.
The Oregon Convention Center in Portland was among the buildings being transformed into shelters for evacuees.
A change in the weather, with winds dropping and shifting direction and humidity rising, greatly helped firefighters struggling to prevent two fires — one burning southeast of Portland and the other east of Salem, the state capital — from advancing farther west into more-populated areas.
“The wind laid down quite a bit for us yesterday. There also wasn’t that strong eastern wind that was pushing the fire more to the west,” Stefan Myers of the state’s fire information team said.
Winds coming from the Pacific Ocean also neutralized the fires’ advance and even pushed them back, Myers said.
Washington has second-worst season
Like Newsom in California, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says the fires devastating California and the Northwest shouldn’t be called wildfires, but “climate fires.” At a news conference Friday, the Democrat noted that the roughly 980 square miles burned in Washington in just the last five days amounts to the state’s second- worst fire season on record, after 2015. “This is not an act of God,” said Inslee, who ran for president on a climate platform. “This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways.”
Inmate firefighters with Vallecito Crew 1 head out to battle the Bear fire, part of the North Complex fire, on Thursday near Oroville. A change in weather will hopefully help firefighters in California, Oregon and Washington. CHRISTIAN MONTERROSA — THE NEW YORK TIMES
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