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'Entire Western US on Fire' as Region Faces Deadly Flames Compounded by Heatwave, Blackouts, and Coronavirus

Seventy wildfires raged across California, Oregon, Washington, and other western states on Wednesday. 

A law enforcement officer watches flames launch into the air as fire continues to spread at the Bear fire in Oroville, California on September 9, 2020. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

A record-shattering heatwave, continuing wildfires, power blackouts, and the coronavirus pandemic in California have combined to put the health and safety of residents across the state in danger this week, as other western states face dozens of blazes as well.

More than 720,000 people in California were told Tuesday to prepare for power shutoffs by Pacific Gas & Electric and other utilities—part of what has been called the "new normal" to minimize wildfire damage as two dozen major fires rage throughout the state.

"Yesterday, 330,000 acres burned in WA. That's more than 12 of the last 18 entire fire seasons. In a single day."
—Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.)

As Common Dreams reported Tuesday, this year's first round of preventative shutoffs began Monday, affecting 172,000 households. 

Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric were also considering shutting off power for more than 71,000 homes combined on Tuesday. 

The shutoffs are being planned as the state faces historic heatwaves; officials in Los Angeles County recorded a record high of 121º Fahrenheit over the weekend, while the temperature in San Francisco rose to 100º on Sunday. 

The National Weather Service issued a warning as temperatures dropped that the widespread power shutoffs could create health risks for vulnerable Californians, as many may need to use their air conditioners to stay cool. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday that the state had financially prepared for preventative power shutoffs after PG&E was criticized for its handling of the protocols last year, facing accusations that the utility didn't give customers enough warning as it initiated a widespread planned power outage for the first time as the state dealt with wildfires. 

The state has put in place "protocols and partnerships with the counties on making sure those that are impacted have support" and is "making sure [community resource] centers are up and operational to protect those most vulnerable," Newsom told the press. 

The centers will retain power so residents can use them—but as The Guardian reported, "some residents may avoid them because of coronavirus infection risks," as people have been advised not to gather in large groups.

Officials also released an air quality advisory, warning that smoke buildup across huge swaths of the state is making the air "unhealthy for sensitive groups"—many of whom are already at heightened risk for complications if they contract Covid-19. 

Maps of the American West showed that California is far from alone in facing dozens of wildfires, even as the region is just now entering the time of year when fires are typically a concern.

More than 70 wildfires were recorded in western states including Washington and Oregon on Wednesday. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a vocal proponent of far-reaching climate action legislation and a transition away from the burning of fossil fuels to renewable energy, tweeted that a record-breaking 330,000 acres of land were burned in a single day in his state.

"That's more than 12 of the last 18 entire fire seasons," Inslee wrote. 

The Oregon Climate Office reported that for the first time, the National Weather Service placed parts of the state under an extreme fire advisory. On social media, viral images of the city of Stayton, located 16 miles from Salem, Oregon, showed a bright red sky over the downtown area in the middle of the day Tuesday.

Malden, Washington—a town of about 200 people not far from Spokane—faced the destruction of its post office, city hall, and about 80% of its homes.

"The scale of this disaster really can't be expressed in words," Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers told CBS News. "The fire will be extinguished, but a community has been changed for a lifetime."

Beth Doglio, a progressive candidate running to represent Washington's 10th district, reiterated her campaign message pushing for a "clean energy future" and a rapid transition away from planet-heating fossil fuel extraction. 

"We are experiencing the effects of climate change now as Western Washington faces multiple burning fires and poor air quality," Doglio tweeted. "We have to transition away [from] burning fossil fuels. We need climate leadership in Congress."

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