Firefighters are working in extreme heat across the western United States to contain surging wildfires, the largest of which are burning in California and Oregon, as another heatwave strains power grids across the region.
The largest wildfire of the year in California – dubbed the Beckwourth Complex – has been raging in the eastern part of the state along the Nevada state line, burning about 348 square kilometres (134 square miles) to date.
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State regulators have asked consumers to voluntarily “conserve as much electricity as possible” starting on Monday afternoon to avoid any outages as a result of the blaze.
The wildfires come as the west of the country is in the midst of a second extreme heatwave within just a few weeks and as the entire region is suffering from one of the worst droughts in recent history.
Experts have pointed to climate change as worsening extreme weather events such as wildfires – and causing them to break out earlier in the season – and some are urging US President Joe Biden to enact long-term policy changes to try to mitigate future blazes.
In Oregon, the Bootleg Fire exploded to 580 square kilometres (224 square miles) as it raced through heavy timber in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, near the Klamath County town of Sprague River.
The fire disrupted service on three transmission lines providing up to 5,500 megawatts of electricity to neighbouring California.
Conditions at the blaze were so severe that the 926 firefighters working the lines were forced in some cases to “disengage and move to predetermined safety zones”, managers said. No fatalities had been reported.
The flames were burning along a high voltage power corridor connecting Oregon’s power grid with California’s, worrying officials in both states that electricity could be knocked out to thousands of homes and businesses.
Residents in hundreds of homes were already under mandatory evacuation orders and the Klamath County Sheriffs’ Department said it would make arrests if necessary to keep people out of those areas.
Residents in other parts of southern Oregon were under “Go now” orders on Sunday, while still more were told to “get set”.
Meanwhile, a wildfire in southeast Washington grew to almost 155 square kilometres (60 square miles), while Idaho Governor Brad Little has mobilised the National Guard to help fight fires sparked after lightning storms swept across the drought-stricken region.
On Sunday, firefighters working in temperatures that topped 38 Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) were able to gain some ground on the Beckwourth Complex in California, doubling containment to 20 percent.
Late Saturday, flames jumped US Route 395, a key north-south roadway that was closed near the small town of Doyle in California’s northeast Lassen County. The lanes reopened on Sunday, and officials urged motorists to use caution and keep moving in areas where flames were still active.
“Do not stop and take pictures,” said the fire’s Operations Section Chief Jake Cagle. “You are going to impede our operations if you stop and look at what’s going on.”
A new fire broke out Sunday afternoon in the Sierra Nevada south of Yosemite National Park and by evening covered more than 15.5 square kilometres (6 square miles), triggering evacuations in areas of two counties.
Containment was just 5 percent but the highway leading to the southern entrance of the park remained open early on Monday.