Wildfires Rage as Heat Wave and Drought Continue

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Firefighters monitor the scene as the Lava Fire continues to burn in Weed, California, on July 1, 2021. Firefighters are battling nearly a dozen wildfires in the region. (Josh Edelson AFP via Getty Images)

Updated July 12, 4 p.m.

Dozens of wildfires burned across the U.S. West on Monday, but fire agencies reported some progress in corralling the flames and forecasters predicted a gradual decrease in extreme temperatures.

Craig Clements, a professor of meteorology and director of the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at San Jose State University, said that what's different this year is the fact that California has been in a drought.

“We are in a severe drought, exceptional drought across most of California, and that's affected the fuel moisture content,” Clements said. “With dry fuels, fires get bigger, they burn hotter, and we have more extreme fire behavior.”

Clements also added that the fuel moisture levels now are equivalent to what would typically be see in September.

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Having such high maximum temperatures is a sign that we're warming the planet, he said. “We are supposed to expect more of these events, and that's pretty scary given the fact that we're in a drought and we've got warmer temperatures.”

Clements said that with many of these big fires, they're more intense because of climate change, but it's not just climate change that people need to be aware of — it's also forest management.

The fires have forced evacuations in numerous areas with dispersed properties and tiny communities where some burned homes and other structures have been observed but total losses were still being tallied. Mandatory evacuation orders are in effect in Madera and Mariposa counties, where the River Fire is at 8,000 acres burned and 10% contained.

The fires erupted as California and neighboring states were in the grip of the second bout of dangerously high temperatures in just a few weeks. The entire region is also suffering from intense drought. The National Weather Service said, however, that the heat wave appeared to have peaked in many areas and excessive-heat warnings were largely expected to expire by Monday night or Tuesday.

The two largest fires were burning forests in northeastern California and southern Oregon, sending smoke across other states.

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Firefighters were working in extreme temperatures across the West Coast and struggling to contain wildfires, the largest burning in California and Oregon, as another heat wave baked the region, straining power grids.

The largest wildfire of the year in California — the Beckwourth Complex — was raging along the Nevada state line and has burned 89,748 acres — about 140 square miles — as of Monday morning. The California Independent System Operator, which oversees the transmission of bulk electricity in the state, issued a statewide flex alert for Monday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

In Oregon, the Bootleg Fire exploded to 240 square miles as it raced through heavy timber in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, near the Klamath County town of Sprague River. The fire disrupted service on three transmission lines providing up to 5,500 megawatts of electricity to neighboring California.

A wildfire in southeast Washington grew to almost 60 square miles, while in Idaho, Gov. Brad Little has mobilized the National Guard to help fight fires sparked after lightning storms swept across the drought-stricken region.

The blazes come as the West is in the midst of a second extreme heat wave within just a few weeks and as the entire region is suffering from one of the worst droughts in recent history. Extreme heat warnings in California are finally expected to expire Monday night.

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On Sunday, firefighters working in temperatures that topped 100 degrees were able to gain some ground on the Beckwourth Complex, increasing containment to 23%.

Late Saturday, flames jumped U.S. Route 395, which was closed near the small town of Doyle in California’s Lassen County. The lanes reopened Sunday, and officials urged motorists to use caution and keep moving along the key north-south route where flames were still active.

“Do not stop and take pictures,” said Jake Cagle, the fire’s operations section chief. “You are going to impede our operations if you stop and look at what’s going on.”

Cagle said structures had burned in Doyle, but he didn’t have an exact number. Bob Prary, who manages the Buck Inn Bar in the town of about 600 people, said he saw at least six houses destroyed after Saturday’s flare-up. The fire was smoldering Sunday in and around Doyle, but he feared some remote ranch properties were still in danger.

“It seems like the worst is over in town, but back on the mountainside the fire’s still going strong,” Prary said.

The River Fire broke out Sunday afternoon south of Yosemite National Park. Thus far, it has burned 4,000 acres and triggered evacuations in two counties. Containment was just 5% but the highway leading to the southern entrance of the park remained open early Monday.

The July heat wave followed an unusual June siege of broiling temperatures in the West. A growing number of scientific studies are concluding that heat waves in some cases can be directly attributed to climate change.

KQED's Sara Hosseini contributed to this report.