Wildfires erupt in California and Nevada; highway to Burning Man reopens after closure
Multiple wildfires have sprung up in both Nevada and California, with one blaze closing the primary road to Burning Man for several hours and another leaving people around Lake Topaz without power. A third fire has destroyed 10 homes near Oroville, a community that has faced several disasters in a span of months.
Firefighters battling a wildfire near the Burning Man festival are trying to keep the main highway open to the counterculture celebration, which started Aug. 27 and ends Monday.
Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Dan Gordon says State Route 447 connecting Interstate 80 to the festival was closed for several hours overnight but reopened Thursday morning.
— NHP Northern Command (@NHPNorthern) August 31, 2017
Gordon says traffic is moving in both directions but it’s “very slow going.”
Interagency fire spokesman John Gaffney says the biggest priority is protecting about a half dozen ranches threatened by the fire that has burned about 45 square miles.
The blaze is about 40 miles south of Burning Man.
He says aircraft are attacking the flames that are chewing through sagebrush and cheatgrass in temperatures expected to reach triple digits.
The fire started on Tuesday northwest of Pyramid Lake in the mountains west of the highway.
Meanwhile, the Slinkard Fire burned over Highway 395 south of Topaz Lake over night, and up to a 4-mile stretch of the highway.
A federal fire report issued this morning said the fire, which has grown since its last estimate of 3,000 acres, showed extreme fire behavior on Wednesday.
Flames ran spotted and groups of trees torched, according to a report issued this morning by the National Interagency Coordination Center.
Liberty Utilities reported its poles and other equipment have burned, creating conditions for an extended power outage for Coleville, Walker and Topaz.
— Liberty Utilities (@LibertyUtil_CA) August 31, 2017
Highway 395 is closed from Holbrook Junction south to Bridgeport, and is not expected to reopen while the fire continues to burn.
While structures, including the RV camps along the west side of Topaz Lake are threatened, none have burned, according to the report.
At last report, the nearly 140 firefighters working on the fire have not managed to make any progress toward a Sept. 10 containment date.
US395/Topaz Lake. Air Ops dropping water from the lake on the ? pic.twitter.com/GaCGa3jsCb
— NHP Northern Command (@NHPNorthern) August 31, 2017
Four hand crews, 19 engines and three helicopters are working the fire that has so far cost $200,000 to fight.
Near Oroville, a region already hard-hit by fire and a massive evacuation earlier this year caused by damage to sections of the nation’s tallest dam, 500 home remain in harm’s way.
Authorities on Wednesday arrested a man suspected of starting an illegal campfire believed to have ignited the blaze that has also damaged five homes.
The fire near Oroville, about 70 miles north of Sacramento, had consumed nearly five square miles and was 10 percent contained, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.
— CALFIRE Butte County (@CALFIRE_ButteCo) August 31, 2017
Three more communities were evacuated, and firefighters struggled to contain the fast-burning flames Wednesday as temperatures surged into triple digits. The U.S. West is struggling with heat that is making the battle against wildfires difficult.
Plus, record rains earlier this year that ended California’s historic drought have produced more vegetation, which is fueling the fires.
“Taken all that together, it’s real tough out there,” Cal Fire spokesman Jeremy Rahn said.
Cal Fire investigators arrested John Ballenger, 29, of Oroville, on suspicion of starting an illegal campfire. He was taken to jail, and records don’t show whether he is represented by an attorney.
“All campfires pose a risk of escaping,” Cal Fire spokesman Darren Read said. “A campfire should never be left unattended and must be extinguished completely before everyone leaves.”
The wildfire is about 20 miles (32 kilometers) east of Oroville Dam. Tens of thousands of residents downstream fled in February when the dam’s spillways crumbled and led to fears of catastrophic flooding. Waters receded before they breached the dam, and water officials said repairs are 20 percent complete.
Months later, a wildfire about 15 miles (24 kilometers) south of the dam destroyed 41 homes.
— CAL FIRE (@CAL_FIRE) August 31, 2017
Meanwhile, about two dozen fires are burning in Oregon, leading to more than 4,500 evacuations. The area burning in the state is roughly equivalent to half the state of Rhode Island. The largest fire is only partially contained after lightning ignited it in mid-July.
Smoke from all the blazes has converged on Portland, several hundred miles away. The smoke has obscured the iconic view of Mount Hood and triggered air quality warnings.
In Montana, authorities have ordered about 1,000 homes and businesses to evacuate near Seeley Lake, a popular destination for boaters, anglers and hikers about 100 miles (161 kilometers) northwest of Helena.
In Glacier National Park, smoke from wildfires has led officials to close the historic Lake McDonald Lodge for the season. Earlier this month, the backcountry Sperry Chalet shut down because of the same fire.
This post has been updated to show that the highway leading to Burning Man has reopened.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Kurt Hildebrand with the Record Courier contributed to this report.