National Geographic News
In this Sunday July 13, 2014, photo released by the Oregon Dept. of Forestry, the Moccasin Hill fire burns north of Sprague River and northeast of Klamath Falls, Ore.

The Moccasin Hill fire burns northeast of Klamath Falls, Oregon. Lightning struck Oregon more than 6,000 times Sunday and Monday, touching off small fires by the dozens.

Photograph by Dennis Lee, Associated Press

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published July 18, 2014

More than two dozen wildfires in Oregon and Washington, sparked by lightning strikes last weekend and spurred by hot, dry conditions and strong winds, are expected to intensify Friday. Hundreds of people have been evacuated and about 1,000 homes have been threatened as more than 300,000 acres burn.

"We're going to have another windy day today, so we expect more fire growth, but we're doing the best we can to contain them," says Ken Frederick, a spokesperson with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

"We have firefighters, engines, and air tankers in place," he says.

As of yesterday, half a dozen of the firefighters had been treated at hospitals for heat-related illnesses. (See "Hot Science: How Investigators Determine the Cause of Fires.")

The greatest damage has occurred in central and eastern Oregon. The state's Moccasin Hill fire, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of Klamath Falls, has destroyed 17 homes and burned 18 outbuildings. The Buzzard Complex fire, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) northeast of Burns, has burned 270,000 acres of grassland and sagebrush.

In Washington state, the Chiwaukum Creek fire has burned 4,500 acres about 120 miles (190 kilometers) east of Seattle. The plume of smoke has been visible from the city and has prompted the closing of a highway and evacuation of about 400 people.

Washington's Mills Canyon fire, which began on July 8 and is now 50 percent contained, has burned 22,000 acres and threatened more than 400 structures.

Fueling the Blazes

According to Frederick, the region's fires have been consuming dry wood and grasses that had been building up on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains.

"The fuels have been dry for a while, but we hadn't had many starts until last week," when more than 6,500 lightning strikes pelted the region, igniting the material. (See "Why Big, Intense Wildfires Are the New Normal.")

"The fires have been compounded by weather," Frederick adds, including temperatures of 90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (32 to 38 degrees Celsius), low humidity, and winds up to 30 miles (48 kilometers) per hour.

A handful of wildfires are also burning in Arizona, northern and southern California, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, Texas, and Canada's remote Northwest Territories.

"Nationwide, firefighters are busy but we're not overwhelmed," says Frederick. "There hasn't been competition for resources."

Future Outlook

The National Interagency Fire Center predicts "above normal fire potential" for the Northwest, California, and the Great Basin for the rest of the month, thanks to hot, dry weather. Arizona and New Mexico are expected to experience normal fire risk.

In August, the agency predicts above normal fire risk for California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

The same could be true of New England and the Four Corners area, according to Frederick, "if short-term weather develops that would support fire outbreaks." (See "Opinion: Don't Log Burned Forests—Let Nature Heal Them.")

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