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Western wildfires rage across 12 states, U.S. at highest alert level

The Bootleg Fire, the largest wildfire burning in the U.S., has torched an area bigger than New York City. Meanwhile, a wildfire near Paradise, California, is rapidly growing.
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Emblematic of the difficulties firefighters are facing across the American West, crews are battling a rapidly growing blaze in Northern California, just 10 miles from the town of Paradise, where the collective trauma of the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state's history remains palpable nearly three years later.

Since it began Wednesday morning, the Dixie Fire in Butte County has scorched about 5,000 acres of brush and timber near the steep terrain of the Feather River Canyon, and was 7 percent contained, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Friday.

While fire officials said the flames were sweeping away from populated areas and into the forests of neighboring Plumas County, residents who lived through the Camp Fire of 2018, which killed 85 people and burned more than 153,000 acres, remained on edge. Butte County officials issued an evacuation warning for the small communities of Pulga and East Concow, east of Paradise.

"A few of my neighbors said they are starting to get their stuff together," Larry Petersen, whose home survived the Camp Fire, told the NBC affiliate KNVN in Chico. "Everybody is all a little worried about it. Just no one wants to go through that again."

"We get a little bit of that PTSD," Paradise resident Jennifer Younie added, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder. "It's just about being prepared."

Elsewhere in the West, the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, the largest wildfire burning in the United States, has torched an area bigger than New York City and destroyed at least 20 homes, fire officials said. It remained about 7 percent contained as of Friday morning.

Also on Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom sent California firefighters to Oregon at the request of Gov. Kate Brown, including crews from San Francisco, Anaheim and Alameda County, building on an order issued last week.

Image: The Bootleg Fire burns on July 12, 2021 in Bly, Oregon.
The Bootleg Fire burns on July 12, 2021 in Bly, Ore. The Bootleg Fire has has spread over 212,377 acres, making it the largest among the dozens of blazes burning in the western U.S. fueled by record temperatures and drought.USDA Forest Service / via Getty Images

Lightning sparked the Bootleg Fire on July 6, and flames have been encroaching on the traditional territory of the Klamath Tribes, whose lands are in Klamath County near the California border. Huge, churning plumes of smoke have been visible for miles.

Tim and Dee McCarley could see trees exploding into flames in their rearview mirror as they fled the fire last week at the last minute. They had put off their departure to pack more belongings and search for their missing cat.

"The sheriff's department had been there and they said, 'If you don't get out of here now, then you are going to die,'" Tim McCarley, 67, told The Associated Press as he, his wife and stepson rested Wednesday at a shelter at the Klamath County Fairgrounds.

In total, more than 70 active wildfires across a dozen states have incinerated a combined area larger than Rhode Island, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, which tracks the coordinated firefighting effort. The center said more than 2.25 million acres have been burned since the beginning of the year, compared to 1.7 million acres in the same period in 2020.

The center on Wednesday declared the U.S. is at the highest alert level on its scale based on allocated firefighting resources. More than 17,000 firefighters and support personnel have been assigned to fight the wildfires, center spokesman Stanton Florea said Thursday.

Last year, the center had not declared a "preparedness level 5" until Aug. 18, signifying how taxing this season has already been on resources.

"We're a full month ahead of where we were last year — and last year was a historic season," Florea said.

At least three states — Oregon, Washington and Montana — have declared emergencies.

Florea blamed record temperatures across the West and a brutal drought, which has led Newsom to ask California residents last week to voluntarily cut back on their water consumption by 15 percent, for exacerbating extreme weather conditions fueled by climate change.

Fire seasons "are lasting longer. Fires are more intense ... we're seeing a sustained level of fire activity year-round, but certainly, this is the height of it for us this year," Florea said, adding that the country has "reached that threshold where most of the firefighting resources are committed."

Fire danger warnings remained in effect Friday for Wyoming, Idaho and parts of Northern California.

A combination of low humidity, wind gusts and the dry conditions from the drought are heightening the critical fire risk, with the greatest opportunity for new wildfires to spark or for existing ones to spread Thursday afternoon and evening, when winds are forecast to be the strongest.

One silver lining, Florea said, is that the monsoon season has begun in the Southwestern U.S., tamping down the potential for increased fire activity in states such as Arizona and New Mexico.

An extreme heat wave late last month sucked vegetation dry in the Pacific Northwest, where firefighters say they are facing conditions more typical of late summer or fall than early July.

A fire in Chelan County in central Washington was threatening 1,500 homes along with orchards and a power station, authorities said. Mandatory evacuations were in effect.

Image: Firefighters deal with extreme conditions as the Bootleg Fire in Oregon expands
Firefighter Garrett Suza does mop up of hotspots in the northwestern section of the Bootleg Fire in Oregon as it expands to over 210,000 acres, Klamath Falls, Ore., on July 14, 2021.Mathieu Lewis-Rolland / Reuters

On Wednesday evening, the Chelan County Sheriff's Office said in a news release that its detectives helped the Chelan County Fire Marshal and federal fire investigators execute a search warrant at a nearby residence believed to be the origin of the fire.

In north-central Washington, about 200 people in the town of Nespelem on Colville tribal land were evacuated Monday night as the largest of five wildfires caused by dozens of lightning strikes tore through grass, sagebrush and timber. Seven homes burned, but four of them were vacant.

"The need for action to protect our climate, and to mitigate the effects of climate change, becomes clearer with each passing year and each round of devastating fires," Colville Tribal Chairman Andrew "Badger" Joseph Jr. said.