Fire, floods, dead fish: Climate change fuels extreme weather, with no ‘return to normal.’

Source: By New York Times • Posted: Thursday, July 22, 2021

The sky in Denver was hazy from wildfires on Tuesday as children cooled down in a fountain.
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

A summer of misery stretched across much of the United States this week, with flash floods in the Southeast, deadly monsoons in the desert, a crackling-dry fire season across the Pacific Northwest and hazy skies on the East Coast blotting out a baleful red sun.

Parts of Montana reached 110 degrees this week — more than 20 degrees above normal — while the nation’s largest wildfire continued to explode in southern Oregon, generating its own weather and prompting state officials to warn residents that they face a long and difficult fire season.

“No corner of our state is immune,” Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon told reporters at an emergency briefing on Tuesday, adding that climate change means dangerously large wildfires “are arriving earlier, coming on faster and lasting for longer.”

The Bootleg Fire, which has burned nearly 400,000 acres across southern Oregon since July 6, is already the fourth-largest wildfire in the state since 1900. On Wednesday, officials said that it had been sparked by lightning.

Smoke filled the air as the Bootleg Fire approached rural properties near Paisley, Ore., on Tuesday.
David Ryder/Reuters

CHILOQUIN, Ore. — As firefighting crews stretched across central Oregon on Wednesday, battling to contain the nation’s largest wildfire, Tawan Murray sat in the parking lot of Chiloquin High School selling concert-style “Bootleg Wildfire 2021” T-shirts.

Mr. Murray has been moving from town to town following the fire, a kind of merchant of the apocalypse. “Business is slow but steady — so many firefighters are rotating in,” he said.

The Bootleg Fire has burned nearly 400,000 acres across southern Oregon since July 6, when it was sparked by lightning, officials said on Wednesday. It is already the fourth-largest wildfire in the state since 1900, and was burning so hot this week that it essentially generated its own weather and spread unhealthy smoke as far as New York City.

At least 2,000 people in rural Oregon have been ordered to evacuate or to prepare to, as the fire has destroyed 67 homes and another 100 structures, according to the state’s Department of Forestry. Although large and growing, the blaze continued to burn mostly on remote forest land.

About 70 miles northeast of Chiloquin, on the outskirts of Silver Lake, the windows of the Cowboy Dinner Tree restaurant frame miles of desert sagebrush and the forest pines beyond. The establishment takes its name from a juniper tree that has stood nearby for decades; local history has it that cattle drivers stopped in its shade to eat at a chuck wagon along the outback trail.

Dead fish from a red tide washed up along a waterfront park in St. Petersburg, Fla., this month.
Arielle Bader/Tampa Bay Times, via Associated Press

COQUINA BEACH, Fla. — The stench hits first, uncomfortable at best and gag-inducing at worst. Then comes a small tickle in the back of the throat that won’t go away.

But it is the dead fish that are the real mark of a red tide. Wednesday on Coquina Beach, south of St. Petersburg, Fla., carcasses were scattered across the shore in small clumps.

“The smell, the dead fish, it’s gross,” said Angie Hampton, 54, who was on vacation from Indiana.

It’s been like that for much of the summer at beaches in the Tampa Bay region and across Southwest Florida, where the harmful algal blooms known as a red tide have killed more than 600 tons of marine life, according to local officials. Some of it was likely pushed ashore by Tropical Storm Elsa two weeks ago.

“This is unusual for Tampa Bay,” said Kate Hubbard, a research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a bloom of this magnitude.”

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A haze of wildfire smoke from the Western United States and Canada stretched across North America this week, elevating air quality health risks.Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Wildfire smoke from Canada and the Western United States stretched across North America this week, covering skies in a thick haze, tinting the sun a malevolent red and triggering health alerts from Toronto to Philadelphia. Air quality remained in the unhealthy range across much of the East Coast on Wednesday morning.

The map below, based on modeling from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shows how the smoke spread across the country. It reflects fine particulate pollution released by wildfires and does not include pollution from other human sources, like power plants and cars.

Cinemagraph

It’s not unprecedented to see smoke travel such long distances, said Róisín Commane, an atmospheric scientist at Columbia University, but it doesn’t always descend to the surface.

The air quality index, a measure developed by the Environmental Protection Agency, spiked across the Midwest and East Coast this week, with numbers hovering around 130 to 160 in New York City, a range where members of sensitive groups and the general public may experience adverse health effects. (The index runs from 0 to 500; the higher the number, the greater the level of air pollution, with readings over 100 considered particularly unhealthy.)

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Canadian officials said nearly 300 active wildfires in the province have prompted evacuation orders, impacting more than 5,700 people.Twitter @Dylangaleas/@Dylangaleas, via Reuters

A provincial state of emergency was declared by the government of British Columbia on Tuesday after wildfires across the region prompted dozens of evacuation orders, officials said.

Mike Farnworth, the minister of public safety and solicitor general, made the declaration based upon the recommendation from the British Columbia Wildfire Service and Emergency Management British Columbia, a news release said. The declaration will remain in effect for two weeks and can be extended if necessary.

The state of emergency will allow provincial and local resources to be delivered in a coordinated response.

There are currently nearly 300 active wildfires across British Columbia and 14 have started in the past two days, according to the government. The majority of the fires are clustered toward the southern tier of the Canadian province, near the borders of Washington and Montana. Wildfires farther east in Canada have forced officials in Minnesota to issue an air-quality alert, affecting much of the state.

The wildfires, which have drawn more than 3,000 firefighters and other personnel, have prompted 40 evacuation orders affecting more than 5,700 people, officials said. Sixty-nine other evacuation alerts affected another 32,000 people.

Downed power lines in Paradise, Calif., where PG&E equipment caused a fire that destroyed the town and killed 85 people in 2018.
Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Pacific Gas & Electric, aiming to show its determination to overcome a history of safety problems, announced Wednesday that it planned to put 10,000 miles of its power lines underground to prevent the kind of wildfires that led the utility to bankruptcy court.

The project, which would involve about 10 percent of the lines currently above ground, could cost tens of billions of dollars to carry out. The announcement prompted questions from longtime critics of the utility about how much of the cost would be borne by ratepayers rather than shareholders.

The company, California’s largest electricity provider, said the work would aim first at areas most vulnerable to wildfires and expand throughout its service territory, which includes 5.5 million electric customers in Northern and Central California.

PG&E’s announcement came days after a preliminary report to state regulators said that its equipment might have caused the Dixie Fire, one of the state’s largest blazes, which has burned at least 85,000 acres. The fire is spreading in Butte County, where the utility’s equipment caused a fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people in 2018.

Although utilities across the country have increasingly moved their power lines underground, none have proposed a project on the scale of PG&E’s plan. Currently, the utility has 27,000 miles of power lines underground, but they are generally not in areas at high risk of wildfires.

The Bootleg Fire burning in southern Oregon last week.
Bootleg Fire Incident Command, via Associated Press

In his four decades of firefighting, Joe Hessel has rarely seen a wildfire prove as difficult to bring under control as the Bootleg Fire, the sprawling blaze that over the past two weeks has scorched almost 400,000 acres in southern Oregon.

And what has made this fire different than most, he said on Wednesday, was back-to-back days of what firefighters call extreme fire behavior.

“It’s not unusual to get a few days in a row, or a day here and there, of extreme fire behavior,” said Mr. Hessel, an incident commander with the Oregon Department of Forestry team that is trying to suppress the Bootleg Fire.

“But on this incident, it’s been 13 or 14 days in a row,” he said. “When you have that type of fire behavior, it’s hard enough to keep up with it, let alone get ahead of it.”

So, what do firefighters mean by extreme fire behavior? Generally, it includes some or all of the following:

A tanker drops retardant over the Mitchell Monument area last week.
Bootleg Fire Incident Command, via Associated Press

Firefighters assigned to battle the Bootleg Fire in southwestern Oregon last week helped save a memorial at the site of the only casualties in the contiguous United States from direct enemy action during World War II.

The memorial, called the Mitchell Monument, is in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, where the Bootleg Fire began more than two weeks ago. The monument, which is made of stone and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003, commemorates the deaths of six people who were killed by a Japanese bomb more than 75 years ago.

The bomb was one of thousands that Japan attached to balloons, which were carried by wind currents over the Pacific Ocean to North America. They would occasionally explode in the timberlands of the Pacific Northwest, causing forest fires.

In May 1945, the Rev. Archie Mitchell, his pregnant wife, Elsie, and five children from his Sunday school planned to picnic at a spot in the forest about 10 miles northeast of Bly, Ore. The group reached the site, and the Rev. Mitchell let everyone out of the car to explore, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While her husband parked the car, Ms. Mitchell and the children discovered the bomb, which exploded, killing everyone except the Rev. Mitchell. The children ranged from 11 to 14 years old.

Last week, firefighters wrapped the memorial and a nearby “Shrapnel Tree,” which shows signs of the blast, in protective materials, Sarah Gracey, a firefighting operations spokeswoman, told OregonLive.com.

Residents waded through a flooded road amid heavy rainfall in Zhengzhou, China, on Tuesday.
China Daily/Reuters

Severe flooding has killed at least 25 people in central China, according to state media reports, including at least 12 who were trapped inside a subway in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province.

The flooding inundated much of the city and surrounding region, creating scenes of destruction that suggested the death toll could be much higher.

Torrential rain that began on Sunday and continued through Wednesday was the heaviest on record in Zhengzhou, reported China’s state television network, CCTV. At one point, nearly eight inches of rain fell in one hour in Zhengzhou, a city of five million along the Yellow River.

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The heaviest rainfall on record in parts of central China triggered heavy flooding. Rescue workers assisted people trapped in buses, houses, and buildings.Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Trapped passengers posted videos showing water rising to their chests or necks. In one video, water surged outside the subway car’s windows. Other photographs and videos — some later apparently removed by censors — showed several lifeless bodies on a subway platform.

A helicopter in Angelus Oaks, Calif., dropped water on the El Dorado Fire in September.
Eric Thayer for The New York Times

A Southern California couple are facing manslaughter charges in connection with a deadly wildfire last September that prosecutors say was sparked by a smoke bomb during a gender reveal.

The El Dorado Fire, which began at a park in Yucaipa, Calif., killed a firefighter and injured two other firefighters while burning more than 22,000 acres across San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.

A grand jury indicted the couple, Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr. and Angela Renee Jimenez, on one count each of involuntary manslaughter, San Bernardino County’s district attorney, Jason Anderson, said at a news conference on Tuesday. They also face three felony counts of recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury, four felony counts of recklessly causing a fire to inhabited structures and 22 misdemeanor counts.

About half of wildfires in the Western United States are caused by people — from downed power lines, discarded cigarettes, untended campfires — while the other half are started by lightning.

“Obviously, he wouldn’t have been out there if this hadn’t started in the first place,” Mr. Anderson said of Charles Morton, 39, the firefighter who was killed. “He’s fighting a fire that was started because of a smoke bomb. That’s the only reason he’s there.”

Remnants of the Bootleg Fire near Klamath Falls, Oregon, on Saturday.
U.S. Forest Service, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As large swaths of the West dry out and burn, scientists say climate change is playing an increasing role in the earlier fire seasons, the deadly heat waves and the lack of water.

The record-high temperatures that assaulted the Pacific Northwest in late June and early July, for instance, would have been all but impossible without climate change, according to a team of researchers who studied the deadly heat wave.

Heat, drought and fire are connected, and because human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases have raised baseline temperatures nearly two degrees Fahrenheit on average since 1900, heat waves, including those in the West, are becoming hotter and more frequent.

“The Southwest is getting hammered by climate change harder than almost any other part of the country, apart from perhaps coastal cities,” Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan, recently told The New York Times. “And as bad as it might seem today, this is about as good as it’s going to get if we don’t get global warming under control.”

Dozens of wildfires are actively burning across the Western United States, charring large swaths of land in recent days, according to a New York Times analysis of government and satellite data. Some are threatening thousands of people who live and work just a few miles away.