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Flames and Smoke Sweep Across U.S. West While Blackouts Ebb

(Bloomberg) — For the West Coast, the blackouts are mostly over. Now it’s a matter of flames and smoke.

Raging fires across the coastal states have forced evacuations, strained fire-fighting resources and smothered much of the region in a twilight pall. While a heat wave has eased and California utilities that shut down their power lines to prevent fires have switched the lights back on, the lingering effects of wind storms this week are proving devastating.

More than half a million acres of forests and grassland burned in California on Wednesday alone, including a blaze in Butte County that killed at least three people. Air quality throughout the San Francisco Bay area reached unhealthy levels, with the eerie orange light that blanketed the region Wednesday giving way to a dismal yellow. In Oregon, Governor Kate Brown warned that some towns had been largely destroyed.

“Over the last 24 hours, Oregon has experienced unprecedented fire, with significant damage and devastating consequences across the entire state,” she said Wednesday. “I want to be upfront and say we expect to see a great deal of loss, both in structures and in human lives.”

The crises add up to an unprecedented assault on the West Coast, underscoring the deepening effects of climate change. More than 3.1 million acres have burned in California this year, surpassing annual records. Fires now raging across Oregon and Washington have torched 1.2 million acres, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The worst of the season may still be to come, with the most dangerous conditions for blazes typically occurring as dry winds pick up in the fall months.

A report out Thursday showing that a La Nina weather system has formed indicates even more extreme conditions, with the possibility that the phenomenon will keep much-needed rains at bay.

Utilities in both California and Oregon cut off power to some customers in advance of this week’s winds, so that gusts couldn’t toss live electrical lines into tree limbs or grass. California’s PG&E Corp., which just emerged from bankruptcy in July after paying $25.5 billion to settle wildfire lawsuits, blacked out about 172,000 households and businesses Monday. By Wednesday evening, all but 5,000 had been restored as the winds faded.

“Our crews are still working and they will continue to work late into the evening to restore as many customers as we can,” Mark Quinlan, the incident commander of operations for PG&E, said during a briefing late Wednesday.

PG&E had found 27 instances of its equipment being damaged by the winds including trees falling into de-energized power lines, Quinlan said.

“We haven’t found any evidence where we were involved in any wildfire ignitions,” he said.

But even the drastic step of turning off the power could not prevent all fires. More than 50 erupted in California during the storm, according to Governor Gavin Newsom. The Butte County blaze sent flames racing toward Paradise, the town leveled nearly two years ago by California’s deadliest fire on record, the 2018 Camp Fire. Some survivors still in the midst of rebuilding fled for a second time.

In Oregon, Portland General Electric Co. shut off power to 5,000 customers before the wind storm. But the gusts knocked down many live power lines across the state.

“We saw downed power lines that started multiple fires,” said Mariana Ruiz-Temple, chief deputy state fire marshal. Portland General Electric said more than 1,100 of it own lines had been felled by the storm, and the company warned that people whose power had been proactively cut could be without electricity through the weekend.

Smoky Skies

In the Bay Area, smoky skies and raining ash provided an inescapable reminder of the fires to even those far from the flames. On Wednesday, the region was covered with thick smoke that blotted out the sun and smothered the landscape in a day-long orange twilight. Cars still required headlights at noon in San Francisco, ash drifted from the sky and residents tweeted joking comparisons to Mars.

“It definitely feels apocalyptic,” said Amanda Millstein, a pediatrician in the San Francisco Bay Area, said Wednesday. “That’s how I’ve started every email today: ‘How is the new phase of the apocalypse going for you?’”

Her two-year-old daughter thought it was night when Millstein dropped her off at day care: “It looked like it was 10 at night when it was 8:30 in the morning,” Millstein said.

While the orange light had faded Thursday, dense gray smoke remained and air quality worsened, forcing residents to close windows and stay indoors.

A ridge of high pressure across the West Coast has pinned the smoke in place, and it could be some time before California, Oregon and Washington get any relief from the soot, said Jim Hayes, a forecaster with the U.S. Weather Prediction Center.

“It is going to have to wait for the next system to kick it out and it could take some time,” Hayes said by telephone. “The high pressure is anchored in place and is not allowing the air to mix out and make things any better.”

(Updates fires starting in third paragraph, adds La Nina report in fifth.)

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