7 Devastating Photos of Wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington


A firefighter douses flames as they push toward homes during the Creek Fire in the Cascadel Woods area of unincorporated Madera County, California on Sept. 7, 2020. Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty Images

What does the climate crisis look like? As wildfires continue to rage up and down the U.S. West Coast, we have some terrifying answers: orange skies; burnt-out buildings; a horse, seemingly abandoned, running past a stall as the hill above erupts in flames. These images help to ground an unfathomable reality.

More than 100 major fires in California, Oregon and Washington have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes during a pandemic, destroyed entire towns and claimed at least 23 lives, USA Today reported Friday. The flames have charred more than three million acres in California alone, a record for the state, The New York Times reported.

While the individual fires have different causes, including a gender-reveal party, scientists agree that changes in the climate make larger fires like the ones burning now more likely. This is because warmer temperatures mean more extreme heat waves and drier air and vegetation, creating ideal conditions for fires to spread, as CBS News explained. While climate change can feel abstract and distant as a prediction, these seven photos of the West Coast fires make it devastatingly real.

Orange Skies 

A boat motors by as the Bidwell Bar Bridge is surrounded by fire in Lake Oroville during the Bear Fire in Oroville, California on Sept. 9, 2020. Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty Images

People in Northern California looked out their windows Wednesday to a scene out of a science-fiction movie as the sky glowed orange. Clouds of smoke covering the state filtered the sun’s light and energy, tinting skies and lowering temperatures, Al Jazeera reported. In San Francisco, the unusual color was a combination of ash from the Bear Fire mixed with the marine layer that provides the city’s famous fog, ABC 7 News explained. The effect was so remarkable that Hillary Clinton shared the image above, taken in Oroville, on her Instagram. “None of this is normal, and confronting climate change is on the ballot this year. Vote, as early as you can, for a habitable planet,” she wrote.

Creek Fire Destruction

A community of forest homes lies in ruins along Auberry Road in the Meadow Lakes area after the Creek Fire swept through on Sept. 8, 2020 near Shaver Lake, California. David McNew / Getty Images

The Creek Fire started on Friday, Sept. 4, just as large swaths of California were facing record-breaking heat for Labor Day weekend. The fire spread quickly through the western edge of the Sierra National Forest. Hundreds of people were airlifted away from the fast-spreading fire earlier in the week, according to KABC in Los Angeles. So far, the fire has burned through 175,893 acres and was only 6 percent contained Thursday, according to the Fresno Bee. Cal Fire’s statistics say the fire, which has ripped through the remote mountain town of Big Creek, has destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings. “My family has been part of this community since 1929 and knowing it’s probably never going to be the same is just gut-wrenching,” said Toby Walt, the superintendent of Big Creek School District, to CNN.

Mass Evacuations in Washington  

Tinted orange by wildfire smoke from Oregon and southern Washington, the sun sets behind a hill on Sept. 9, 2020 in Kalama, Washington. David Ryder / Getty Images

As of Wednesday, wildfires had scorched 587,000 acres of Washington state, nearly half the area of land that burned during the entire record-setting fire season of 2015, The Seattle Times reported. The fires prompted Washington Governor Jay Inslee to sign an emergency declaration Wednesday, and to promise cash assistance for people who have lost their homes to the flames. Hundreds of families have had to evacuate, including residents of Tacoma suburb Bonney Lake. One of them was Christian Deoliveira, who fled his home with his fiancé and five-year-old son early Tuesday morning. “I woke up at about 3 a.m. to a neighbor knocking on the door, saying the whole hillside’s on fire,” Deoliveira told The News Tribune.

Animals Affected by Wildfires

A horse runs by a stall as flames from the Hennessey fire approach a property in the Spanish Flat area of Napa, California on Aug. 18, 2020. Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty Images

Wild animals in the West are accustomed to wildfires as a natural part of the ecosystem. Some even need the burnt-out areas for their breeding grounds, while other predators will lie in wait for prey fleeing the fire. But the size and intensity of the current fires is beyond what most animals have adapted to. While scientists do not have a count of how many animals die in wildfires, they do know that smoke, fire and heat are extremely dangerous for animals that can’t escape fast enough, particularly young and small animals, according to National Geographic. It’s not just wild animals that suffer. Domestic pets are also left behind to fend for themselves as fire approaches and pet owners need to evacuate. Animal rescue crews are scrambling to find cats and dogs that were left behind. After finding one dog, Farshad Azad of the North Valley Animal Disaster Group told the Vallejo Times-Herald, “Everything around him was incinerated.” He added, “People are really afraid. And people are hurting because their animals are missing.”

The Human Toll

Resident Austin Giannuzzi cries while embracing family members at the burnt remains of their home during the LNU Lightning Complex fire in Vacaville, California on Aug. 23, 2020. Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty Images

The fires have claimed at least 23 lives and destroyed hundreds of homes in all three states. One of the hardest hit areas has been California’s Butte County, which was also the site of 2018’s Camp Fire, the fire that scorched the town of Paradise and was the deadliest and most destructive in the state’s history. Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Thursday at least 10 people in his county had died in the North Complex fires, while dozens were missing and hundreds of homes were feared lost, according to USA Today. The blaze even menaced Paradise again, though The Mercury News reported evacuation orders for part of the town had been lifted. But Paradise’s experience was repeated in the Butte County community of Berry Creek, which was obliterated by a part of the North Complex Fire Tuesday night. “The school is gone, the fire department’s gone, the bar’s gone, the laundromat’s gone, the general store’s gone,” 50-year-resident John Sykes, who watched the blaze from a mile away, told The Sacramento Bee. “I’ll never go back. I don’t want to see it. That’s why I’m leaving. I never want to see California again.”

Communities Threatened and Destroyed in Oregon

A sprinkler wets the exterior of a home as wildfires approach nearby in Clackamas County on Sept. 9, 2020 in Oregon City, Oregon. David Ryder / Getty Images

High winds have fueled the rapid spread of the wildfires in Oregon, which are threatening the Western part of the state at an unprecedented rate. More than a half-million people have fled from the fires, which makes up more than 10 percent of the state’s population of 4.2 million, according to the BBC. As of Thursday, there were 37 different blazes in the state, affecting people along the Interstate 5 corridor from Ashland in the south to Portland in the north. That includes Salem and Eugene. The blazes, which are only 1 percent contained, have decimated the towns of Phoenix and Talent, destroying hundreds of homes. “We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across the state,” said Governor Kate Brown, as the BBC reported. “This will not be a one-time event. Unfortunately, it is the bellwether of the future. We’re feeling the acute impacts of climate change.”

Wildfires During a Pandemic

A sign warning people about COVID-19 is surrounded by flames during the Hennessey Fire near Lake Berryessa in Napa, California on Aug. 18, 2020. Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty Images

The intense fires in the midst of a pandemic that requires social distancing is complicating evacuation strategies. Usually, people fleeing fires will huddle together in school gymnasiums. The COVID-19 pandemic has made that a no-no. The same restrictions apply to firefighters who would usually bunk together in small spaces, according to HuffPost. Complicating matters further is that the poor air quality from the smoke may affect recovery from COVID-19. “We know that wildfire exposure to communities increases the risk of lower respiratory tract infection,” such as acute bronchitis and pneumonia, said Dr. John Balmes, a physician at the University of California, San Francisco, as HuffPost reported. “So there’s concern in the context of the pandemic that wildfire smoke exposure would increase the risk of moving from mild to more severe COVID-19.”

Note: This article has been updated to clarify that orange skies are being seen in areas of Northern California including Oroville and San Francisco.

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