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Because of fire, West Coast has four of the world’s 10 most polluted cities

Smoke has suffused the sky for days, replacing a bright yellow sun with a hazy red orb and raining down flakes of ash on much of the West Coast, where four cities on Sunday were among the 10 most polluted places in the world.

Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle ranked eighth, sixth and third, respectively, but the dubious honor of worst air of any big city on the globe went to Portland, Ore., where smoke was blowing in from more than 30 blazes burning across the state.

Before President Trump’s scheduled arrival in Northern California on Monday, the immediate weather forecast — dry air and whipping winds — seems to suggest that even more devastating days lie ahead in what has already become a record-breaking fire season in the American West, where wildfires have killed at least 35 people and charred nearly 4.9 million acres.

On Sunday morning, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon went on an ABC news show to discuss the fires, and both described the situation in their states as apocalyptic.
Merkley told the host he’d recently driven 600 miles up and down the coast and never once escaped the smoke. Inslee, donning a cloth mask, said that after visiting with a woman who had lost her home to flames, it dawned on him that her tears were among the only moisture anywhere in the state.

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“We have a blowtorch over our states in the West, which is climate change,” said Inslee, who expressed frustration with Trump, who he said wasn’t focusing enough on how a warming climate lays the groundwork for such catastrophic fires. Trump has called climate change a hoax, although at other times he has acknowledged it.

On Monday, Trump — who drew criticism last week for not having addressed the deadly fires charring millions of acres — is expected to visit with emergency officials in Sacramento County and receive a briefing on the fires, including the massive North Complex fire in Northern California.

The blaze, which began with a bolt of lightning in mid-August, has burned ferociously since then, killing at least 14 people, causing thousands to evacuate during a deadly pandemic and chewing through more than 261,000 acres in Butte, Plumas and Yuba counties.

As of Sunday night, it was 26% contained.

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Over the next few days, firefighters will have to deal with breezier southerly winds, said Cory Mueller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

“That’s the big concern,” Mueller said. “We are expecting increased fire-weather concerns given the gusts.”

Usually, onshore winds bring higher humidity — welcomed by firefighters — but the forecast is expected to stay dry until at least Wednesday, Mueller said. There’s a chance of showers in the region Thursday and Friday, he added.

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As the North Complex fire burns into its 25th day, people with friends and relatives who live within the evacuation zones continue to deal with anxiety.

Fire fuels worry and a search for a relative

For Michelle Rancour-Aldridge, the panic began Tuesday night.

After she left her pottery class that evening, she heard that residents of Berry Creek — a hilly area not far from Paradise, the town largely destroyed by flames in 2018 — had been ordered to evacuate. She immediately dialed her sister’s landline.

The phone was disconnected.

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“I’m going to go up there,” Rancour-Aldridge, 50, said she thought to herself. She was determined to find her sister, Kelly Burke, 49.

She hopped into her truck and drove to the base of a nearby mountain, but a sheriff’s deputy stopped her. It made sense, Rancour-Aldridge thought, given the history of the area — the way Paradise turned into a deathtrap during the Camp fire in 2018.

Still, Rancour-Aldridge was terrified.

Even as she evacuated from her own home in Palermo, about an hour south, around midnight Wednesday, her mind raced with thoughts of her sister.

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“All kinds of scenarios were playing out in my head,” she said. “But I know my sister really well. If she is told to leave, she leaves.”

Eventually, Rancour-Aldridge got hold of one of her sister’s neighbors, who told her she’d seen Burke evacuating from the area with a friend.

By Thursday, still without word from her sister, Rancour-Aldridge decided to return to pottery class to distract her racing mind but couldn’t stop thinking about her free-spirited sister. She thought about the Berry Creek home her sister had lived in for 25 years, where she had raised seven children.

An environmental philosopher coined the term solastalgia to describe the pain “experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault.”

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The next day, Rancour-Aldridge’s daughter had an epiphany: They had forgotten to call local hospitals. When she dialed Oroville Hospital, she learned that Burke had been admitted a few hours earlier, not for smoke inhalation or burns, but for kidney stones.

Rancour-Aldridge rushed to the hospital to visit her sister, who, she later learned, had helped other neighbors prepare to evacuate before fleeing down the mountain.

Her sister told her an unpaid phone bill was the reason the landline wasn’t working. But Burke has larger worries as her home, as well as the homes of two of her children, were ultimately lost to the fire, said Rancour-Aldridge, who started a GoFundMe account to raise money toward rebuilding. When she told her sister she’d started the account, Burke said she would do anything to return to her home in the mountains.

“I don’t care if I live in a tent,” her sister said.

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“Oh, Kelly, you can’t go back,” she told her, sadly. “That place is cooked.”

Twenty miles north of the hospital, at Roost Café in Chico, owner Linda Juanarena spent Sunday considering just how much her life had changed in recent months.

If not for the fires and the pandemic, her restaurant would be bustling with customers this time of year. Instead, she sat alone at a table inside her quiet restaurant, which is surviving off takeout orders and catering. When the pandemic hit and she had to close the café to indoor dining, Juanarena, 62, ended up giving away food and lost an estimated $18,000 in merchandise.

“We’re getting hit on all sides,” she said.

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In Oregon, a firefighter shortage and swirling rumors

South of Portland, in Clackamas County, emergency officials spent Sunday grappling with a now-familiar problem: a firefighter shortage.

During an afternoon news briefing, Ralph Lucas, an operation section chief managing one of the fires in the region, said many of his recent requests to other agencies to send back-up firefighters were coming back with the same response: UTF — Unable to fill.

“We’re literally out of firefighters and equipment due to the sheer magnitude of fires that are occurring in the Western United States,” Lucas said.

In many rural canyons and valleys, residents have stepped in to fill the need, driving around with massive water tanks and makeshift fire hoses, dousing spot fires despite orders to evacuate.

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At the briefing, Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts said that, in response to rumors on social media about people stealing from evacuation zones, some residents had also armed themselves and begun illegally patrolling the area.

“Please stop that,” he said. “It’s illegal to stop people at gunpoint.”

Smoke persists in Southern California

In Southern California, firefighters faced an increasingly tough situation Sunday, as onshore winds gusted to around 15 to 20 mph, said Kathy Hoxsie, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. The Bobcat fire, burning in the Angeles National Forest, had torn through more than 33,000 acres by Sunday evening and sent thick, unhealthful smoke into the Los Angeles Basin. It also prompted the evacuation of some Arcadia residents, who gathered for shelter at the Santa Anita racetrack.

And yet, the winds weren’t as bad as in Northern California, where officials have predicted gusts of up to at least 30 mph over the next few days.

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The light winds in Southern California meant some areas could see slightly thinned-out smoke, and others will get thicker smoke, Hoxsie said, adding that no big change is expected until at least the middle of the week.

“We have that big high pressure over us, and as long as that’s there it’s kind of a cap on the smoke,” she said.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District has forecast moderate to unhealthful air for a large swath of the region, including central Los Angeles and the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys. Conditions are expected to be somewhat better along the coast and in Orange County.

Poor air quality contributed to the weekend closure of eight parks in L.A. County: Eaton Canyon, Devil’s Punchbowl, Frank G. Bonelli Regional Park, Lario Staging Area, Marshall Canyon, Peck Road Water Conservation Park, San Dimas Canyon Natural Area and Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area.

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The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health warned residents to stay indoors as much as possible and limit physical exertion, indoors or out.

“If you can see smoke, soot or ash, or you can smell smoke,” said county Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis, “pay attention to your immediate environment and take precautions to safeguard your health.”


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