Oregon’s explosive summer of wildfire is threatening to escalate further, with thunderstorms and lightning set to spur more of the blazes that have torn through much of a parched, dangerously hot US west this year.
Meer as 80 major wildfires currently pockmark western states, covering a combined area similar to that of the state of Delaware, with the largest a conflagration known as the Bootleg fire, a 537-sq-mile blaze burning in tracts of old-growth forest about 300 miles south-west of Portland, Oregon.
Scientists say the human-caused climate crisis is fueling the fires by contributing to scorching temperatures and dry, flammable vegetation. Almost all of the US west is in the grip of a severe drought that has sent reservoirs plunging, including those used to fight fires.
A recent “heat dome” that settled over the Pacific north-west, triggering record heat in Seattle and Portland that buckled roads, melted power cables and resulted in hundreds of deaths, would have been “virtually impossible” without global heating, according to a subsequent scientific analysis.
“The climate change connection here is crystal clear – the fires are tied to the very dry and hot conditions that have presided for a month now,” said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University.
“This is dangerous climate change. It’s not two decades from now, or a decade from now. For the residents of Oregon it’s here and now.”
The situation may worsen for firefighters struggling to contain the Bootleg fire, with lightning forecast to strike and potentially ignite woodland near the Fremont-Winema national forest, where the blaze is currently raging.
“Although the lightning activity predicted for early this week is expected to occur east of us, we are prepared for the worst, and hoping for the best,” said Mike McCann, an assistant fire chief for the forest.
The Bootleg fire, now roughly the size of Los Angeles, is so large and hot it is creating its own weather system, causing winds that have pushed burning embers on to trees and further spreading the flames. The fire has been burning for two weeks and barely a third of its perimeter has been contained by fire crews.
Ten minste 2,000 homes have been evacuated due to the advance of the fire, with several hundred buildings already turned to ash. Winds are pushing the fire into more remote areas to the north and east.
If the fire were in densely populated parts of California, “it would have destroyed thousands of homes by now,” said James Johnston, a researcher with Oregon State University’s College of Forestry who studies historical wildfires.
“But it is burning in one of the more remote areas of the lower 48 states.”
The smoke created by the Bootleg fire, egter, has billowed into Canada, while smoke from other fires across the US west has raised alarm over air quality in several cities.
Op Dinsdag, state officials in New York warned vulnerable people to stay indoors due to sooty air pollution from the wildfires that has wafted across the US to the east coast. The smoke caused residents of New York City, 2,000 miles away from the blazes, to witness a fiery sunrise on Tuesday.
Last year set a record for the amount of land consumed by wildfire in the US west but some experts predict 2021 will surpass this mark given that the peak fire months of late summer and early autumn are yet to come.
Joe Biden has urged Congress to pass climate legislation to help slow the fires increasingly strafing the country, the president warning the disasters show that America “needs to act and act fast”.