Firefighters in the western United States faced “another critical day” as thunderstorms pushed flames closer to two towns not far from where California’s Dixie Fire destroyed much of an historic community last week.
The thunderstorms, which began on Friday, did not produce much rain but whipped up wind and created lightning strikes, forcing crews to focus on using bulldozers to build lines and keep the blaze from reaching Westwood.
The town of about 1,700 people was placed under evacuation orders on August 5.
Wind gusts of up to 80 kilometres per hour (50 miles per hour) also pushed the fire closer to another town called Janesville, home to about 1,500 residents, said Jake Cagle, the operations chief at the east zone of the fire.
“Very tough day in there yesterday in the afternoon and the night (crew) picked up the pieces and tried to secure the edge the best they could with the resources they had,” he said in a briefing on Saturday.
With a similar forecast of thunderstorms on Saturday, firefighters faced “another critical day, another challenging day”, Cagle said.
The fire was among more than 100 large wildfires burning in more than a dozen states in the western US seared by drought and hot, bone-dry weather that turned forests, brushlands, meadows and pastures into tinder.
Last week, the blaze decimated the historic gold rush town of Greenwood, as residents were forced to flee as the flames destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses, and gutted the community’s downtown area.
The US Forest Service said on Friday that it is operating in crisis mode, fully deploying firefighters and maxing out its support system.
The roughly 21,000 federal firefighters working on the ground is more than double the number of firefighters sent to contain forest fires at this time a year ago, said Anthony Scardina, a deputy forester for the agency’s Pacific Southwest region.
More than 6,000 firefighters alone were battling the Dixie Fire, which has ravaged nearly 2,100 square kilometres (845 square miles) – an area the size of Tokyo – and was 31 percent contained.
“The size is unimaginable, its duration and its impact on these people, all of us, including me, is unbelieve,” Johnnie Brookwood, a Greenville resident who was forced to flee the wildfire, told The Associated Press from her third evacuation centre.
The cause of the fire has not been determined. Pacific Gas and Electric has said the fire may have been started when a tree fell on its power line.
There also was a danger of new fires erupting because of unstable weather conditions, including extreme heat across the northern half of the West and a chance of thunderstorms that could bring lightning to Northern California, Oregon and Nevada, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
A fast-moving fire broke out on Saturday afternoon east of Salt Lake City, Utah, shutting down Interstate 80 and prompting the evacuation of Summit Park, a mountain community of 6,600 people. Fire officials said the blaze was burning about 8 square kilometres (3 square miles) and threatening thousands of homes and power lines.
In southeastern Montana, firefighters were gaining ground on a pair of fires that chewed through vast rangelands and at one point threatened the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.
The fires were caused by heat from coal seams, the deposits of coal found in the ground in the area, said Peggy Miller, a spokeswoman for the fires. Mandatory evacuation for the tribal headquarters town of Lame Deer remained in place due to poor air quality, she added.
Smoke also drove air pollution levels to unhealthy or very unhealthy levels in parts of Northern California, Oregon and Idaho, according to the US Air Quality Index.
Hot, dry weather with strong afternoon winds also propelled several fires in Washington state, and similar weather was expected into the weekend, fire officials said.
Climate change has made the US West warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make the weather more extreme and wildfires more destructive, scientists have warned.
Dozens of fires also are burning in western Canada and in Europe, including Greece, where a massive wildfire has decimated forests and torched homes.