Firefighters were making progress against several significant blazes Thursday, authorities in California and Oregon said, though they warned that conditions could allow wildfires to quickly spread again or start anew around the states.
More than 17,000 firefighters had slowed, stalled or even diminished some of the major fires in California, Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the state fire agency, said. The August Complex fire, which has burned almost 800,000 acres north of Sacramento, was 30% contained, and the North Complex fire, stretching 228,000 acres in Northern California, was 36% contained.
And Californians in the Bay Area were able to enjoy smoke-free skies for the first time in weeks: Thursday was the first day with no "Spare the Air" warning after a record 30 consecutive days.
In Oregon, the Beachie Creek fire east of Salem, which has burned nearly 200,000 acres and forced tens of thousands to evacuate, was 20% contained by Thursday morning.
Still, meteorologists said that dry conditions could prime the fires to spread again. A "warming trend" is expected to return to California this weekend, the state fire agency said, with higher temperatures after a relatively cool stretch.
Dry lightning from thunderstorms posed a threat in Oregon, where vegetation remains dry after weeks of high heat and little rain. Severe thunderstorms were possible in the late afternoon and early evening, the National Weather Service said, and wind gusts up to 60 mph and hail up to the size of quarters may accompany the storms.
"That is always concerning because thunderstorms can produce dangerous lightning and gusty winds and even some small hail," said Brad Schaaf, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Medford, Ore.
The storms will move quickly, but the volatile winds, Schaaf said, make it "hard to predict exactly where the winds would push the fires."
Some major areas of concern for the thunderstorms include the Cascades and eastern Douglas County, and northward into the Willamette Valley, Schaff said. He urged residents who were in warning zones to seek shelter. "If you hear thunder, go indoors," Schaaf said.
In the scorched foothills of the Cascades, flash flooding was also a worry. Any rainfall has the potential to "run off hard and fast if there is nothing on the ground," said Clinton Rockey, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Portland, Ore.
Also Thursday, emergency teams continued to search for victims and survivors of the fires, which have killed more than 30 people, destroyed thousands of structures and burned across more than 5 million acres in three states so far.
The smoke from the wildfires is stretching clear across the country -- and even pushing into Mexico, Canada and Europe. People thousands of miles away in the East are seeing unusually hazy skies and remarkable sunsets.
The long reach of smoke isn't unprecedented. While there are only small pockets in the southeastern U.S. that are haze free, experts say the smoke poses less of a health concern for those who are farther away.
The sun was transformed into an orange orb as it set over New York City on Tuesday. Photographs of it sinking behind the skyline flooded social media. On Wednesday, New Jersey residents described a yellow tinge to the overcast skies, and weather forecasters were kept busy explaining the phenomenon and making predictions as to how long the conditions would last.
On the opposite coast, air-quality conditions were among some of the worst ever recorded. Smoke cloaked the Golden Gate Bridge and left Portland, Ore., and Seattle in an ashy fog, as crews have exhausted themselves trying to keep the flames from consuming more homes and even wider areas of forest.
Satellite images showed that smoke from the wildfires has traveled almost 5,000 miles to Britain and other parts of northern Europe, scientists said Wednesday.
The current weather system, which favors a westerly wind across the higher levels of the atmosphere, is to blame for the reach of the smoke, experts explained.
"We always seem, at times, to get the right combination of enough smoke and the upper level jet stream to line up to bring that across the country, so we're just seeing this again," said Matt Solum with the National Weather Service's regional operations center in Salt Lake City. "It's definitely not the first time this has happened."
'THE WORST I'VE SEEN'
Meanwhile, this year's blazes have taxed the human, mechanical and financial resources of the nation's wildfire-fighting forces to an extraordinary degree. And half of the fire season is yet to come. Heat, drought and a strategic decision to attack the flames early combined with the coronavirus put a historically heavy burden on fire teams.
Justin Silvera came off the fire lines in Northern California after 36 straight days battling wildfires and evacuating residents ahead of the flames. Before that, he and his crew had worked for 20 days, followed by a three-day break.
Silvera, a 43-year-old battalion chief with California's state firefighting agency, said he's lost track of the blazes he has fought this year. He and his crew have sometimes been on duty for 64 hours at a stretch, their only rest in 20-minute catnaps.
"I've been at this 23 years, and by far this is the worst I've seen," Silvera said before bunking down at a motel for 24 hours. After working in Santa Cruz County, his next assignment was to head north to attack wildfires near the Oregon border.
"There's never enough resources," said Silvera, one of nearly 17,000 firefighters battling the California blazes. "Typically ..., we're able to attack -- air tankers, choppers, dozers. We're good at doing that. But these conditions in the field, the drought, the wind, this stuff is just taking off. We can't contain one before another erupts."
George Geissler, the state forester for Washington, said there are hundreds of unfulfilled requests for help throughout the West. Agencies are constantly seeking firefighters, aircraft, engines and support personnel.
"We know that there's really nothing left in the bucket," Geissler said. "Our sister agencies to the south in California and Oregon are really struggling."
"We are at a critical time: The West is burning. People are dying. The smoke is literally starting to cover our country, and our way of life as we know it is in danger," Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana said Wednesday during testimony in support of an emergency wildfire bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, that would direct more resources to prevention.
Andy Stahl, a forester who runs Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, an advocacy group in Oregon, said it would have been impossible to stop some of the most destructive blazes, a task he compared to "dropping a bucket of water on an atomic bomb."
Separately, two inmates who were among the 2,750 transported between prisons as fires threatened correctional facilities in Oregon have tested positive for the coronavirus, authorities said.
The dilemma prison officials faced during the evacuations this month was complex, as they grappled with managing large facilities through simultaneous dangers. There were fears that in saving inmates from the fires, they would trigger a new outbreak of the virus.
So far the positive tests are limited to a female inmate from the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility and a man from the Coffee Creek Intake Center who were both among those evacuated to the Deer Ridge Correctional Institute, more than 100 miles to the southeast.
The inmates were tested Sept. 5 and 6, but test results came in late because of a "delay with the labs," said Jennifer Black, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Corrections. The department was notified of the results Monday, when the inmates were "immediately medically isolated" and moved back to Coffee Creek, Black said.
At Deer Ridge, a crowded state prison, inmates slept shoulder to shoulder in cots and in some cases on the floor; food was in short supply; and showers and toilets were few -- conditions that are optimal for the dangerous spread of the coronavirus, experts say.
The male inmate was tested for the virus when he was at the 10-day mark of a 14-day observation period. The woman had been tested as part of her "release planning" for later in the month. Both were asymptomatic, Black said.
There have been more than 200,000 coronavirus infections in U.S. prisons and jails and nearly 1,200 deaths since the pandemic began.
Information for this article was contributed by Susan Montoya Bryan, James Anderson and Matthew Brown of The Associated Press; and by The New York Times.