Cooler California weather helps firefighters but unleashes floods

Calmer weather in Northern California helped firefighters battle a smoky wildfire threatening thousands of mountain homes on Monday, while remnants of last week’s Pacific hurricane continued to produce thunderstorms that caused flash flooding in the southern part of the state, where crews made headway against another huge blaze.

Also Read| Power generators spew toxic fumes 24/7 in parts of Middle East

Major fires were also burning in Oregon and Washington, blanketing swaths of the Western states in thick smoke and prompting alarms about unhealthy air quality.

The Mosquito Fire in the foothills east of Sacramento spread to 76 square miles (197 square kilometers), with 16% containment, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.

Firefighters were able to take advantage of cooler temperatures and higher humidity Monday to strengthen control lines, according to a Cal Fire status update. But officials remain concerned about a large area of dense unburned forest to the east of the blaze that could be “very receptive” to fire activity.

More than 5,800 structures in Placer and El Dorado counties were under threat, and some 11,000 residents of communities including Foresthill and Georgetown were under evacuation orders.

Also Read| UN urges rich countries for compensation to tackle loss from climate change

In Southern California, milder temperatures and rain aided crews battling the massive Fairview Fire about 75 miles (121 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles after days of sweltering heat.

The 44-square-mile (114-square-kilometer) blaze was more than half-contained Monday morning. The fire has destroyed at least 30 homes and other structures in Riverside County. Two people died while fleeing the blaze Sept 5.

The southern part of the state welcomed the cooler weekend weather after what’s left of Hurricane Kay veered off the Pacific Coast and faded, helping put an end to blistering temperatures that nearly overwhelmed the state’s electrical grid.

But unstable air persisted, and powerful thunderstorms unleashed flash floods that inundated roads and highways — closing one roadway along the California-Nevada border— across inland areas.

More than 50 people were rescued after mudslides trapped at least 24 cars and a responding fire truck in the mountainous Lake Hughes area north of Los Angeles on Sunday. No injuries were reported.

In San Bernardino County, east of Los Angeles, officials reported flash flooding and mudslides in areas that burned during wildfires in 2020, including the El Dorado Fire that was sparked by a gender reveal party. A firefighter was later killed in the blaze, and the couple accused of starting the fire have been criminally charged in a pending case.

Firefighters on Monday went street by street in Forest Falls to make sure no residents were trapped by the mudflow. Eric Sherwin, spokesperson for the San Bernardino County Fire Department, said crews had not found anyone who needed to be rescued and no residents were reported missing.

But numerous structures in the area had varying levels of damage, Sherwin said, including a commercial building where the mud had gone up over the roofline and the weight of it had caused the roof to collapse.

And dramatic video footage showed a trio of police officers rescuing a mother and her children from being swept away during a flash flood in the city of San Bernardino.

“Our officers do not encounter swift water floods often, however it doesn’t stop them from jumping into action and saving lives,” the police department said Monday on Twitter.

Cal State San Bernardino was closed Monday “due to extensive flood damage,” the university said on its website.

Flood watches and advisories had mostly expired, but slow-moving thunderstorms were possible Monday, the National Weather Service said on Twitter.

To the north, remnants of Kay caused flooding Saturday that stranded about 40 vehicles and closed a stretch of State Route 190 in Death Valley National Park. The park is still cleaning up from floods five weeks ago that closed many key roads.

Smoky skies from wildfires in many areas of the West caused air quality to deteriorate Monday, with dangerous levels of particulate pollution from wildfires detected by government and private monitors in portions of eastern Oregon and Washington, Northern California, central Idaho and western Montana. In some areas, people were told to avoid all outdoor activity until the pollution cleared.

The smoke was expected to be particularly thick in the area around Truckee, California, and across the state border near Reno and Carson City, Nevada.

Winds were forecast to push the smoke east later Monday, giving relief to parts of western Oregon and Washington, according to government forecasts. But the smoke was expected to linger in many mountain valleys and worsen in parts of Idaho and Montana before improving in the coming days.

In Washington, fire officials scrambled to secure resources for a blaze sparked Saturday in the remote Stevens Pass area that sent hikers fleeing and forced evacuations of mountain communities. As of Monday, the Bolt Creek Fire was 2% contained and had scorched nearly 12 square miles (31 square kilometers) of forestland about 65 miles (104 kilometers) northeast of Seattle. A larger incident management team and additional fire crews were slated to arrive Tuesday, officials said.

In Oregon, utility companies said Monday they restored power to tens of thousands of customers after shutting down service over the weekend to try to prevent wildfires during high winds, low humidity and hot temperatures.

Both Portland General Electric and Pacific Power enacted planned power shutoffs Friday as gusting winds and low humidity moved into Oregon, posing extreme fire danger. The utilities were concerned that the winds would cause power lines to break or sag, making sparks that could ignite tinder-dry vegetation.

Power shut-offs because of extreme fire weather, common in California, are new to the Pacific Northwest.

South of Portland, evacuation levels were reduced near the 135-square-mile (349-square-kilometer) Cedar Creek Fire, which has burned for over a month across Lane and Deschutes counties. Firefighters were protecting remote homes in Oakridge, Westfir and surrounding mountain communities. Sheriff’s officials warned that people should remain ready to leave at a moment’s notice should conditions change.

According to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, this weekend there were more than 400 square miles (1,035 square kilometers) of active, uncontained fires and nearly 5,000 people on the ground fighting them in Oregon and Washington.

Scientists say climate change has made the West warmer and drier over the last three decades and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive. In the last five years, California has experienced the largest and most destructive fires in its history.