Rain aids effort to control blazes in U.S. West; 1 firefighter dies

by Reuters
Friday, 18 September 2020 14:30 GMT

Firefighters walk in line while defending the Mount Wilson observatory during the Bobcat Fire in Los Angeles, California, U.S., September 17, 2020. REUTERS/Ringo Chiu TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

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The firefighter died on Thursday while battling the El Dorado wildfire in California's San Bernardino National Forest, U.S. Forest Service officials said on Friday

By Brad Brooks

MOLALLA, Ore., Sept 18 (Reuters) - A California firefighter was reported dead on Friday as a front of humid and rainy weather aided the efforts of weary emergency crews and brought some relief to a region that has suffered a historically devastating fire season.

The firefighter died on Thursday while battling the El Dorado wildfire in California's San Bernardino National Forest, U.S. Forest Service officials said on Friday. The El Dorado fire, which officials have said was started by pyrotechnics at a gender reveal party, has burned nearly 20,000 acres (8,094 hectares) since the beginning of the month.

"Our deepest sympathies are with the family, friends and fellow firefighters during this time," the Forest Service said in a statement posted on Twitter, adding that the cause of the firefighter's death was under investigation.

Overnight, rain in northwest Oregon and humidity over the San Francisco Bay Area bolstered hope for further containment of the dozens of deadly wildfires that have raged for weeks due to tinderbox conditions created by high winds, lightning and drought.

Cooler, more favorable weather in the region since last week has already dispelled some of the smoky, polluted air and tempered the flames, enabling ground teams with hand tools and bulldozers to regroup and consolidate their gains while also allowing greater use of water-dropping helicopters and airplane tankers.

The region still faces a formidable recovery from the fires, which have burned some 3.2 million acres in California since mid-August and another 1.7 million acres in Oregon and Washington state since Labor Day.

Several small towns have largely been incinerated, with thousands of dwellings destroyed and at least 35 lives lost - 26 in California, including the firefighter - eight in Oregon, and one in Washington state. Thousands of evacuees, especially in Oregon, remained huddled in emergency shelters, mobile trailers and hotel rooms.

The situation was particularly dire in Oregon, a state unaccustomed to wildfires of such magnitude and lacking sufficient resources to deal with them.

Oregon's firefighting force has more than doubled over the past week, with some 6,500 personnel on the fire lines. CalFire said more than 17,400 firefighters were deployed against 26 fires in the most populous U.S. state.

'GOOD HEADWAY'

By Thursday, 11 days into the latest crisis, authorities in all three states were delivering a notably more optimistic assessment.

Storms are expected to bring much-needed rain to the hard-hit western slopes of the Cascade Mountains, Doug Grafe, fire protection chief for Oregon's Forestry Department, said on Thursday.

He warned, however, that high winds and lightning from those storms could also complicate firefighting efforts, and heavy showers could lead to mudslides.

Still, Grafe said, several large fires have been mostly suppressed, allowing the state to shift more resources to 10 major blazes that remain.

Thomas Kyle-Milward, a spokesman for Washington state's Department of Natural Resources, was likewise upbeat, telling Reuters, "Despite thin resources, we're feeling like we're making good headway."

A key sign of success has been a steady rise in containment, a measure of the buffer lines that firefighters carve around the perimeter of each blaze by hacking away unburned vegetation to prevent its spread.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks, Steve Gorman, Maria Caspani and Gabriella Borter; Writing by Will Dunham and Steve Gorman, editing by Timothy Gardner)