The arrival of strong gusts after the Labor Day weekend’s unusual temperatures saw most of California placed under severe weather warnings, with 14,000 firefighters battling 25 major wildfires across the country’s most populous state.
“We’re dealing with challenges we haven’t seen in modern times,” said California governor Gavin Newsom.
More than 170,000 Californians were left without electricity as utility company PG&E enacted a “last resort” shutoff across large swathes of the state due to the extreme wildfire threat.
In northwestern Washington state, 330,000 acres burned in just 24 hours — more than in any of the last 12 fire seasons, Governor Jay Inslee said.
“These fires are extraordinary. They are doing things we’ve never seen before as to how fast they spread,” said Inslee. Another 100,000 people lost power due to high winds and fire in his state.
Helicopters operating at the rapidly spreading Creek Fire near Fresno in central California airlifted 362 people — including 148 on Tuesday — to safety, as overnight hazardous smoky conditions cleared, the California National Guard told AFP.
Rescue officials were on standby after concluding the evacuations of all known residents and tourists in the area, but a spokeswoman warned the operation “is not completely over.”
Multiple homes were engulfed by flames in the nearby Tollhouse area overnight, while videos on social media showed the fire surrounding campsites around the popular holiday spot Mammoth Pool Reservoir.
The Creek Fire has spread through more than 140,000 acres and was zero percent contained on Tuesday. Meanwhile, new flames broke out in northern California, hit by intense winds.
“Multiple new fast-moving & dangerous fires have broken out this morning in addition to existing ones,” tweeted University of California Los Angeles scientist Daniel Swain.
“Strong offshore wind pattern is just arriving, & will affect new (and) existing fires for rest of day into tomorrow.”
The three-week-old Bear Fire jumped its containment lines during fierce winds and was spreading at an “extreme rate” comparable to the nearby 2018 Camp Fire — the deadliest in modern California history — Swain added.
Further south, another inferno — the Bobcat Fire — threatened the fringes of greater Los Angeles.
Evacuations were in progress from the closed Angeles National Forest, just north of the metropolis, with more than 8,500 acres (3,400 hectares) on fire in the blaze that broke out Sunday.
Wildfires spread rapidly over the holiday weekend, which saw a record 121-degree Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius) temperature recorded in Los Angeles county.
Santa Ana winds arriving Tuesday were expected to strengthen through to Wednesday morning, with gusts of 55 miles (88 kilometers) per hour.
“Existing fires are displaying extreme fire behaviour, new fire starts are likely, weather conditions are worsening, and we simply do not have enough resources to fully fight and contain every fire,” said Randy Moore, regional forester for the Pacific Southwest Region.
They came as overstretched firefighters were finally gaining ground on many of the lightning-caused fires in Northern California that ignited last month.
California has now seen more than 2.2 million acres burn in wildfires this year — an annual record, with nearly four months of fire season still to come. There have been eight deaths and more than 3,300 structures destroyed.
The small town of Malden in Washington was nearly totally razed, with 80 percent of its buildings including the fire station, post office and city hall “completely burned to the ground,” the local sheriff said in a statement.
“The scale of this disaster really can’t be expressed in words,” said Sheriff Brett Myers. “The fire will be extinguished but a community has been changed for a lifetime. I just hope we don’t find the fire took more than homes and buildings. I pray everyone got out in time.”
Governor Inslee is due to visit Thursday, and said the town “looked like a bomb had gone off.”