SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – A fast-growing forest fire south of Lake Tahoe skipped a freeway, leading to further evacuation orders and the cancellation of an extreme bike tour through the Sierra Nevada on Saturday as critically dangerous forest fire weather loomed in the coming days.
The Tamarack fire, ignited by lightning on July 4, exploded overnight and covered over 82 square kilometers on Saturday evening, according to the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. The fire threatened Markleeville, a small town near the California-Nevada border. It destroyed at least three buildings, authorities said, and burned in the direction of Alpine County Airport after jumping over a freeway.
A notice posted on Death Ride’s 165-kilometer website stated that several communities in the area had been evacuated and ordered all riders to evacuate the area. The fire left thousands of cyclists and onlookers stranded in the small town and ran to get out.
Kelli Pennington and her family camped near town on Friday so her husband could join his ninth ride when they were told to leave. They had observed the smoke development during the day, but were surprised by the rapid spread of the fire.
“It went so quickly,” said Pennington. “We left our tents, hammocks and some groceries, but we got most of our things, pushed our two children into the car and left.”
Saturday’s ride was meant to mark the 40th Death Ride, which each year attracts thousands of cyclists to the region to ride over three mountain passes in what is known as the California Alps. It was canceled last year during the coronavirus outbreak.
Paul Burgess, who had pulled up from Los Angeles to take the ride, said most of the cyclists he met were grateful to avoid the risk of fire.
“You just said it was going to go that way,” said Burgess. “It’s part of climate change to some extent, it’s part of a lot of fuels that don’t burn, the humidity is low, the fuel humidity is low, and … all over the state, a lot of parts of it are much parts like a tinderbox. “
Afternoon winds of 20 to 30 mph fanned the flames as they chewed through bone-dry wood and scrub. Meteorologists predicted critically dangerous fire weather for at least Monday in both California and southern Oregon, where the largest forest fire in the United States continued to hurtle through bone-dry forests.
The bootleg fire grew significantly overnight on Saturday as dry and windy conditions hit the area, but the inferno containment more than tripled as firefighters on the western flank gained more control. However, the fire was still burning rapidly and dangerously along its south and east flanks, and authorities expanded evacuations to a largely rural area with lakes and wildlife sanctuaries.
The fire was 453 square miles (1,173 square kilometers) in size, or more than 100 square miles larger than the area of New York City.
“This fire is big and moving so fast that it progresses 4 to 5 miles each day,” said Incident Commander Joe Hassel. “One of the many challenges our firefighters have to face every day is working in a new country that can constantly bring new dangers with it.”
Extremely dry conditions and heat waves related to climate change have inundated the region and made fighting forest fires difficult. Climate change has made the west much warmer and drier over the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and forest fires more frequent and destructive.
In southern Oregon, firefighters have faced dangerous and extreme fire conditions, including massive “clouds of fire” rising up to 10 kilometers above the fire. The Bootleg Fire destroyed at least 67 houses and 117 outbuildings.
The conflagration forced 2,000 people to evacuate and threatened 5,000 buildings, including homes and smaller buildings, in a rural area north of the California border.
The Tamarack Fire sent heavy smoke across Lake Tahoe and into Nevada.
The National Weather Service on Sunday warned of possible thunderstorms stretching from the California coast to northern Montana and that “new lightning strikes” are likely due to extremely dry fuels in the west.
Firefighters said in July they were facing conditions more typical of late summer or fall.
The fires were just two of many fires that burned in the drought-stricken western United States as new fires emerged or grew rapidly in Oregon and California.
There have been 70 active major fires and multiple fire complexes in the United States that burned nearly 1,659 square miles (4,297 square kilometers) in the United States, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. According to the US Forest Service, at least 16 major fires burned in the Pacific Northwest alone.
A fire in the mountains of northeast Oregon was also growing rapidly, covering 17 square miles (44 square kilometers) on Saturday. The fire at Elbow Creek began Thursday and resulted in evacuations in several small, rural communities around the Grande Ronde River, about 50 kilometers southeast of Walla Walla, Washington.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown invoked the Emergency Conlagration Act to mobilize more firefighters and equipment to fight the fire.
The Dixie Fire, near the site of the deadliest fire in the United States in 2018, was 5% contained on Saturday and covered 39 square miles. The fire was in Feather River Canyon, northeast of the city of Paradise, California, and survivors of that terrible fire that killed 85 people carefully watched the new fire burn.
Officials ordered the evacuation of a wilderness recreation area and held up a warning for residents of the tiny communities of Pulga and East Concow to be ready to leave.
“We are prepared,” said Mike Garappo, a retired military veteran. “We have always dealt with fires in the mountains. We know there is a chance it won’t score here, but we’re ready to go in case. “
Flaccus reported from Portland, Oregon. Contributors to this report were AP journalists Terry Chea in Belden, California and Julie Walker in New York City.
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