Satellite images of Hurricane Irma dominated television screens and news feeds as it approached Florida over the course of last week. The image above looks like another shot of Irma wreaking havoc, except it is not.
The image actually shows dozens of large wildfires ravaging the West Coast. As of Sept. 11, more than 1.6 million acres of wilderness were on fire across nine states.
The problem reached national proportions more than a month ago when the National Interagency Fire Center elevated the preparedness to level 5, the highest state of emergency. Think of it as the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane.
An Oregon wildfire that has damaged landmarks in the scenic Columbia River Gorge slowed its push toward evacuated houses near the city of Portland on Wednesday, officials said.
“Our hearts are breaking,” Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said at a news conference. “The Gorge is Oregon’s crown jewel.”
Meanwhile, the so-called Eagle Creek Fire near Portland merged late Tuesday with another blaze, the Indian Creek Fire. The two combined have charred more than 33,000 acres, officials said.
Heavy fire activity was expected to continue through September in much of the West, and through October in parts of the northern Rocky Mountains and California, the National Interagency Fire Center said, citing hot and dry weather conditions as the primary cause.
The Eagle Creek Fire, burning in the Columbia River Gorge, forced hundreds of people to evacuate homes earlier this week in communities east of Portland, including Warrendale, Dodson and Latourell, and sent ash falling on the city itself.
Sixty four large wildfires covering more than 1.6 million acres were burning in the western part of the United States on Wednesday, a day after federal officials said 200 active duty military personnel would help fight the fires.
“It’s very unusual to have this many fires burning this many acres across such a broad area at this time in September,” National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said.
It is the first time in two years fire officials have turned to the U.S. Department of Defense for assistance, and at a time when the fire season would normally be winding down in many parts of the West.
The Eagle Creek fire, now seven percent contained, has burned one home and four outbuildings, as well as damaging the historic Oneonta Tunnel and hiking trails, officials said.
But firefighters protected the historic Multnomah Falls Lodge and damage was not as bad in the gorge as feared.
“The gorge still looks like the gorge; it’s not a wasteland,” Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office spokesman Damon Simmons told reporters.
A 15-year-old boy is believed to have started the blaze by lighting fireworks, but the investigation continues and the teen has not been charged, Oregon State Police said.
Authorities said they were seeking to determine when they can lift evacuation orders near Portland.
One of those, the Caribou Fire northwest of Eureka, has destroyed 10 homes and forced the evacuation of hundreds of people, said fire information officer Don Simon. It is now 25 percent contained.
Reuters contributed to this report.