Calmer winds and rising humidity are helping firefighters battle more than 100 wildfires Saturday that continue to rage largely uncontrolled along the U.S. West Coast, and President Donald Trump announced he would visit California on Monday to see the devastation himself.
After days of hot, windy weather, on Saturday the winds calmed and shifted to the west, bringing cooler, more moist weather from the ocean to help firefighters in California, Oregon and Washington state, where entire towns have been incinerated and at least 28 people killed.
The thick smoke that hung in the air brought lower temperatures and higher humidity. It also brought the dirtiest air in 35 years to some cities, triggering health warnings and prompting officials to urge residents to remain indoors.
In Salem, the state capital of Oregon, the air quality index reading was 512 on Saturday morning. The scale tops out at 500. Anything above 200 is considered “very unhealthy,” and anything above 300 is deemed “hazardous.”
In Paradise, California, a city devastated by wildfire in 2018, the reading was 592, according to the PurpleAir monitoring site.
"Above 500 is literally off the charts," said Laura Gleim, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
Thick smoke and haze blanketed much of the region, triggering health warnings and prompting officials to urge residents to remain indoors.
The White House said Trump, a Republican, will meet Monday with local and federal officials in McClellan Park near the California state capital of Sacramento to be briefed on the California wildfires.
The president visited California in November 2018 after that year’s devastating wildfires and took to Twitter to blame California’s forest management and environmental laws.
His Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, on Saturday linked the conflagrations to climate change.
"We absolutely must act now to avoid a future defined by an unending barrage of tragedies like the one American families are enduring across the West today," Biden said.
Twenty-eight active, major fires have burned about 11,000 square kilometers in California, killing at least 19 people since mid-August. More than 16,000 firefighters are working in the state.
In Oregon, at least six people have died, and authorities are concerned that the receding flames could lead to the discovery of more bodies across the blackened terrain in the region. Dozens of people have been reported missing, but the hope is that they are just unable to communicate their whereabouts.
“We are preparing for a mass fatality incident based on what we know and the numbers of structures that have been lost,” said Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management (OEM), on Friday.
More than 40,000 people in Oregon have been evacuated and some 500,000 — more than 10% of its population — remained under some level of evacuation protocol as fires in the state destroyed thousands of homes and burned hundreds of thousands of hectares. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Friday amended Thursday’s statement by OEM that said a half-million people throughout the state had been ordered to evacuate.
The Oregon Convention Center in Portland has been transformed into a shelter for evacuees. Other evacuation centers were opened across the state, while many evacuees have simply taken refuge in their cars in large parking lots.
In southern Oregon, an apocalyptic scene of burned residential subdivisions and trailer parks stretched for kilometers along a highway — a scene mirrored in parts of California, where the governor gave a blunt assessment.
“This is a climate damn emergency. This is real and it's happening. This is the perfect storm," California Gov. Gavin Newsom said. “What we're experiencing right here is coming to communities all across the United States of America unless we get our act together on climate change.” More than 68,000 people are under evacuation orders in California.
In Oregon’s most populated region, helicopters dropped water and fire retardant on two fires that threatened to merge.
Governor Brown said Friday dozens of people are missing in Jackson and Marion counties.
In California, the largest fire in the state’s history is burning in the Mendocino National Forest, about 190 kilometers northwest of Sacramento.
The amount of land burned in Washington state in just the past five days has made this the state's second-worst fire season, after 2015.
"This is not an act of God," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
This year’s wildfires in California have already burned record areas of land. The year also saw the largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history, along with five of the top 10 largest fires in state history. The fire season is still young in the region, where wildfires have historically intensified in the fall.
In addition to beating back the wildfires, authorities are now challenged with fighting misinformation on social media sites that the fires were ignited by arsonists from far right and far left groups. The FBI said Friday it has investigated some claims and so far has found them to be untrue.
On Friday, however, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department in Oregon announced that 41-year-old Michael Bakkela had been arrested on two counts of arson and other charges in connection with the Almeda fire in southern Oregon. Bakkela has denied starting the blaze.
The sheriff’s department also said a man was found dead near an ignition point of the Almeda fire, which burned hundreds of homes, and that a search was underway for about 50 missing people.
Meanwhile, meteorologists said California’s wildfires are responsible for the orange glow in the sky that people across Britain woke up to Friday.
Meteorologist Simon Lee told The Telegraph: “Meteorologically speaking, in the last few days we have seen a very strong and straight, west-east, jet stream, flowing across the North Atlantic from North America to Europe, which has undoubtedly helped rapidly and coherently transport the aerosols from North America.”