OROVILLE, Calif. – Wildfires raced through more than a dozen Western states Thursday, incinerating homes, forcing hundreds of thousands of evacuations, and burning a swath of land almost the size of New Jersey.
At least 23 people have died and hundreds of homes have been destroyed by more than 100 major fires that have consumed nearly 7,000 square miles. Authorities in Oregon say more than 500,000 people statewide have been forced to evacuate because of wildfires – over 10% of the state’s 4.2 million population.
“Unprecedented weather conditions have created emergency situations near wildfires throughout California, Oregon, Washington and other states,” the National Fire Information Center warned. “Almost half of the large fires reported today have evacuation orders in place.”
Nineteen deaths have been reported in California, three in Oregon and one in Washington state. In Northern California’s Butte County, Sheriff Kory Honea said at least 10 people have died, including seven more added to the death toll Thursday. Dozens are missing and hundreds of homes were feared destroyed by a series of blazes 125 miles northeast of San Francisco called the North Complex fires.
Several people have been critically burned and thousands more homes were threatened. At least 20,000 people were under evacuation orders or warnings in Plumas, Yuba and Butte counties.
John Sykes, a 50-year resident, fled with his car and some clothes. He watched the town of Berry Creek burn from about a mile away.
“The school is gone, the fire department’s gone, the bar’s gone, the laundromat’s gone, the general store’s gone,” Sykes told the Sacramento Bee. “I’ll never go back. … I never want to see California again.”
The fire also threatened Paradise, a town devastated in 2018 by the deadliest inferno in state history, the Camp Fire. More than 80 residents died and almost 20,000 buildings were destroyed in that blaze.
In the Sierra National Forest, authorities say it will likely be at least a week, and possibly a month, before the Creek Fire is controlled sufficiently to permit residents to return. The fire has displaced tens of thousands of Californians, and the Red Cross was helping evacuees find hotel rooms because group shelters are prohibited during the coronavirus outbreak.
“You couldn’t really see anything. There was smoke everywhere. We were in too much smoke to see flames,” Alec said. “At first we were like it was just another fire. Then it got real.”