Firefighters struggle to contain California wildfires as heat wave swelters western U.S.

Firefighters struggled to contain an exploding Northern California wildfire under blazing temperatures as another heat wave hits the U.S. West this weekend, prompting an excessive heat warning for inland and desert areas.

On Friday, Death Valley National Park in California recorded a staggering high of 54 C and could reach the same high on Saturday. If verified, the temperature reading would be the hottest high recorded there since July 1913, when the same Furnace Creek desert area hit 57 C, considered the highest reliably measured temperature on Earth.

The Beckwourth Complex — a merging of two lightning-caused fires — headed into Saturday showing no sign of slowing its rush northeast from the Sierra Nevada forest region after doubling in size only a few days earlier.

California’s northern mountain areas already have seen several large fires that have destroyed more than a dozen homes. Although there are no confirmed reports of building damage, the fire prompted evacuation orders or warnings for roughly 2,800 people in California along with the closure of nearly 518 square kilometres of Plumas National Forest.

On Friday, ridgetop winds up to 32 km/h combined with ferocious heat as the fire raged through dry pine, fir and chaparral. As the fire’s northeastern flank raged near the California-Nevada state line, the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office asked people to evacuate some areas in the rural communities of Ranch Haven and Flanagan Flats, north of Reno.

Embers blow across a field as the Sugar Fire burns in Doyle, Calif., on Friday. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

“Evacuate now,” a sheriff’s office tweet said.

Hot rising air formed a gigantic, smoky pyrocumulus cloud that reached thousands of feet high and created its own lightning, fire information officer Lisa Cox said.

Spot fires caused by embers leapt up to 1.6 kilometres ahead of the northeastern flank — too far for firefighters to safely battle, and winds funnelled the fire up draws and canyons full of dry fuel, where “it can actually pick up speed,” Cox said.

Firefighters usually take advantage of cooler, more humid nights to advance on a fire, Cox said, but the daytime conditions persisted. More than 1,200 firefighters were aided by aircraft, but the blaze was expected to continue forging ahead because of the heat and low humidity that dried out vegetation.

The air was so dry that some of the water dropped by aircraft evaporated before reaching the ground, she added.

An air tanker drops fire retardant to keep the Sugar Fire from reaching the Beckwourth community of unincorporated Plumas County, Calif., on Friday. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

“We’re expecting more of the same the day after and the day after and the day after,” Cox said.

The blaze, which was only nine per cent contained, increased dramatically to 223 square kilometres after fire officials made better observations.

It was one of several threatening homes across western states that are expected to see triple-digit heat through the weekend as a high-pressure zone blankets the region.

The National Weather Service warned the dangerous conditions could cause heat-related illnesses, while California’s power grid operator issued a statewide Flex Alert from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday to avoid disruptions and rolling blackouts.

Flex Alerts call for consumers to voluntarily conserve electricity by reducing the use of appliances and keeping the thermostat higher during evening hours when solar energy is diminished or no longer available.

More states battle blazes

Meanwhile, other fires were burning in Oregon, Arizona and Idaho.

In Oregon, pushed by strong winds, a wildfire in Klamath County grew from nearly 67 square kilometres Thursday to nearly 158 square kilometres on Friday in the Fremont-Winema National Forest and on private land. An evacuation order was issued for people in certain areas north of Beatty and near Sprague River.

That fire was threatening transmission lines that send electricity to California, which along with expected heat-related demand prompted California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday to issue an emergency proclamation suspending some rules to allow for more power capacity.

In north-central Arizona, increased humidity slowed a big wildfire that posed a threat to the rural community of Crown King. The 64-square-kilometre lightning-caused fire in Yavapai County was 29 per cent contained as of Friday. Recent rains allowed five national forests and state land managers to lift public-access closures.

In Idaho, Gov. Brad Little declared a wildfire emergency Friday and mobilized the state’s National Guard to help fight fires sparked after lightning storms swept across the drought-stricken region.

Fire crews in north-central Idaho were facing extreme conditions and gusts as they fought two wildfires covering a combined 50.5 square kilometres. The blazes threatened homes and forced evacuations in the tiny, remote community of Dixie about 64 kilometres southeast of Grangeville.

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