'Like a hammer hitting us in the head': Homes ablaze in California as Western wildfires rage

More than 22,000 firefighters were combating explosive wildfires across the West on Sunday as homes burned and thousands of residents fled fast-spreading flames.

The Dixie Fire in Northern California and the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon were the most ravenous among at least 88 major wildfires across 13 states. Firefighters were struggling with rugged terrain in hot, dry conditions, the National Interagency Fire Center said.

"Very dry conditions will continue for the northern Intermountain West, including poor overnight recovery for mid-slopes and ridges," the fire center warned.

Don't expect the wildfire threat to ease any time soon, authorities say.

The "harsh reality" is that the nation will continue to see more intense wildfires, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said Sunday. She said her state is investing in forest thinning and other programs aimed at long-term mitigation.

On Sunday, more than 2,200 firefighters were struggling to contain the Bootleg Fire, 639 square miles of devastation ranking as the state's third-largest fire in more than 100 years. More than 70 homes already have burned, and thousands more are threatened. Fire trucks and other resources were coming in from Arkansas, Nevada, Alaska and elsewhere.

"They (wildfires) are hotter and more fierce," Brown said on CNN's "State of the Union." "Climate change is here, it's real, and it's like a hammer hitting us in the head. And we have to take action."

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There were reports of small victories. The nation’s largest wildfire, the Bootleg Fire, was nearly halfway surrounded despite high heat and wind, fire officials said. The sprawling blaze had slowed, but work remained.

“This fire is resistant to stopping at dozer lines,” said Jim Hanson, fire behavior analyst with the Oregon Department of Forestry. “With the critically dry weather and fuels we are experiencing, firefighters are having to constantly reevaluate their control lines and look for contingency options.”

In Northern California, the Dixie Fire, which began July 14 and is only 21% contained, had grown to about 300 square miles Sunday after merging with the smaller Fly Fire. The blaze had destroyed more than 20 homes and buildings, and 7,000-plus homes were threatened even as more than 5,000 firefighters battled the inferno, Cal Fire said.

Firefighters carrying hand tools were forced to hike through rugged terrain where engines can’t go, Cal Fire spokesman Rick Carhart said.

“It has been burning in extremely steep canyons, some places where it is almost impossible for human beings to set foot on the ground to get in there,” he said. “It’s going to be a long haul.”

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Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for four northern counties because of wildfires that he said were causing “conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property.” The proclamation opened the way for more state support.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea was among law enforcement officials going door to door to ensure that residents of threatened areas evacuated. Complicating the firefighting effort was a series of smaller blazes breaking out in the area, including some started by people using machinery, Honea said.

“We can’t afford to have any more fires, and thankfully, Cal Fire was able to get a hold of those fires and stop them from destroying any structures or spreading,” Honea told the Enterprise-Record. “But luck will not last. So if you’re going to be out there, doing things ... that could cause a fire – stop.”

Evacuations have been ordered for several communities in Butte, Plumas and Tehama counties. The cause of the fire has not been determined.

Elsewhere in California, the 104-square-mile Tamarack Fire south of Lake Tahoe continued to burn through timber and chaparral and threatened communities on both sides of the California-Nevada state line. The fire, sparked by lightning July 4 in Alpine County, has destroyed at least 23 buildings. It was 27% contained Sunday, and officials were able to lift evacuation orders.

Heavy smoke from that blaze and the Dixie Fire lowered visibility and may at times ground aircraft providing support for fire crews. The air quality south of Lake Tahoe and across the state line into Nevada deteriorated to very unhealthy levels.

Elsewhere, two fires in Washington state's Okanogan County threatened hundreds of homes. And in Montana, Gov. Greg Gianforte enlisted the aid of Newsom and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox to send crews to help battle blazes, including the Devil's Creek Fire that injured five firefighters last week. Also in Montana, the Alder Creek Fire threatened 240 homes.

"Thank you, @GovCox and @GavinNewsom, for supporting the State of Montana this wildfire season," Gianforte tweeted.

Contributing: Elinor Aspegren, USA TODAY; The Associated Press.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Wildfires scorch Western US as homes burn and thousands threatened