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Record-Setting Wildfires Blaze Across Western U.S.

A bevy of large wildfires are burning across 12 states, destroying towns and leaving the most vulnerable citizens at further risk.

Wildfire-produced ash and smoke have led to apocalyptic images, like this, shot in an area between Stayton and Lyons, Ore. (Photo courtesy of Zach Zinda)
Wildfire-produced ash and smoke have led to apocalyptic images, like this, shot in an area between Stayton and Lyons, Ore. (Photo courtesy of Zach Zinda)

The most destructive year of wildfires in California continues today as 28 wildfires, including the second, third, and fourth largest fires on record in that state, are burning along with over 60 fires in 11 other states in the western United States. These active fires have burned about 5,300 square miles so far, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, which also reported 18 new “large fires,” defined by NIFC as being at least 100 acres in timber/forest or 300 acres in grasslands/ranges, across the U.S., in today’s update

The fires have spawned apocalyptic images in Northern California, Oregon, and Washington with, variously, red, orange, grey, and black skies from the fires ash and smoke.

In Washington, strong winds helped fan a fire that mostly destroyed a town, Malden, of about 200 people near Spokane. Washington Governor Jay Inslee said, “An estimated 330,000 acres of our state burned just in 24 hours. More acres burned yesterday than in 12 of the last entire fire seasons in the state of Washington,” according to NBC News. The state’s two largest fires, which have burned more than 337,000 acres, have no level of containment.

Oregon’s wildfires have burned hundreds of homes to ground, with that state’s governor, Kate Brown saying that, “This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state’s history,” according to CNN. Brown also said at least five towns have been “substantially destroyed.” Oregon currently has 14 large active fires, one of which caused residents in parts of Medford, Ore. To evacuate.

In California, Pacific Gas & Electric shut off power to 170,000 homes and businesses in Northern and central California, according to KQED, in an effort to mitigate the risk of catalyzing new fires, again. 14,000 firefighters are currently trying to contain the state’s blazes, which have already burned a total of over 2.2 million acres, an all-time record. Eight people have been killed and thousands of buildings have destroyed this year by wildfires. All national forests in California have been temporarily closed by the U.S. Forest Service due to the current spate of fires and the increased potential for new fires.

Walnut Creek, Calif. on September 9, 2020, under wildfire smoke and ash. (Paul Sherer/ Direct Relief)
Walnut Creek, Calif. on September 9, 2020, under wildfire smoke and ash. (Paul Sherer/ Direct Relief)

Other states experiencing large fires include Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. The total burned acreage this year nationally is just under 4.7 million acres. The 10-year average at this point in the year is 5.75 million acres and the largest total by this time was 8.65 million acres in 2015, according to NIFC.

Direct Relief’s Research and Analysis team has been tracking the wildfires with an eye toward analyzing the populations most at-risk during the events, which can exacerbate preexisting conditions such as asthma. The Covid-19 pandemic has added another layer of complication to response efforts while also increasing dangers for those with comorbidities. Analysis by Direct Relief of coastal communities to the west of the fire perimeters, north of San Francisco – which are in areas of heavy smoke inundation– show 43 Federally Qualified Health Centers. These centers serve 94,000 patients, of which 40,000 live at 200% or more below the poverty line and 2,130 are experiencing homelessness. Thousands of these patients suffer from chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes, hypertension, depression, and PTSD.

An analysis by Direct Relief of anonymized Facebook-provided data revealed that people in fire-stricken areas are mostly moving towards the coast, where population has increased by 6.5% compared to baseline totals.

“Folks have been shifting towards the coast, away from the burn zones, which seems quite rational. However, this area along the coast is also the peak smoke coverage area, which gets worse as the forecast moves forward in time. So as folks have moved away from the fire perimeters, they’ve moved towards an area of increasing and quite thick smoke coverage – varying from simply unhealthy to hazardous,” said Andrew Schroeder, vice president of Research and Analysis at Direct Relief.

Direct Relief has responded to wildfires since 2007, and created a Wildfire Kit last year, which contains medicines and supplies that have been most requested by healthcare providers amidst these disasters. The kits are designed to enable the treatment of about 250 people for 3 to 5 days.

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