More than 2,500 firefighters supported by 17 helicopters were battling the flames of an “explosive” fire on Monday that continued to spread at a still “very rapid” rate in the forested hills of central California, near of the famous Yosemite National Park.
The fire, dubbed the “Oak Fire”, broke out on Friday near the small town of Midpines and had already covered some 7000 hectares of vegetation according to the latest report available on Monday evening.
Already the biggest Californian forest fire of the season, “it is advancing very quickly and the window of reaction to evacuate people is limited”, explained on the CNN channel Jon Heggie, a person in charge of the Californian firefighters.
According to the expert, the speed of progression and the behavior of this fire are “truly unprecedented”.
30 meters high
< p>“The flames were up to 30 meters high,” David Lee, an evacuee, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper.
The 55-year-old was among the first people evacuated on Friday and believes his home was engulfed in the fire.
“He was heading straight for us. This fire is by far the fastest I have ever seen,” Mr. Lee added.
The “Oak Fire” was only 16% contained on Tuesday, after destroying about ten buildings but the emergency services fear that this toll will increase rapidly.
The California state fire department said firefighters were working tirelessly “using bulldozers, hand crews and aircraft.”
L he fire threatens a few thousand homes in small rural towns in Mariposa County, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, where several thousand people remained under evacuation orders.
The fire, described as a “megafire” by Jon Heggie, is fueled in particular by dead trees and withered bushes in this region, which, like most of California, is subject to chronic drought.
“C 'is a direct result of climate change,' said the fire chief. “You can't have ten years of drought in California and expect things not to change.”
Jonathan Pierce, a spokesman for the fire department, said low humidity and high temperatures fueled the fire.
“We also have high tree 'mortality' in Mariposa County, so a lot of dead trees that are standing, a lot of dead trees that are on the ground,” he added.
Some 3,000 people have been evacuated so far, officials said.
Yosemite Park, one of the most famous in the world, suffered a fire in mid-July whose flames threatened its giant sequoias. These trees for some millennia have been generally preserved thanks in particular to controlled fires carried out for decades in these groves to reduce the fuel on the ground.
Declared on July 7, the fire in question was still not completely extinguished on Monday.
The American West has already experienced forest fires of exceptional magnitude and intensity in recent years. , with a very marked lengthening of the fire season, a phenomenon that scientists attribute mainly to climate change.
The “Oak Fire” is one of the most dramatic manifestations of the heat wave that hit the United States this weekend. Near the fire, temperatures are expected to reach 37°C on Monday, according to forecasts.
Similar or even higher temperatures were still expected in the central United States (Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas) and even the generally cool and very humid northwest coast of the country was not spared.
Weather services have issued a heat alert for Seattle this week and records could be broken there on Tuesday.
The city is so unaccustomed to the heat that many homes have no air conditioning, so very rare in the United States.
The region had experienced a historic heat peak in June 2021, with temperatures reaching 47°C in places in the northwestern United States and Canada neighbor.
Authorities estimate that hundreds of people had died due to this unprecedented heat wave in the area.
The extreme weather conditions prompted the former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, a longtime environmental advocate, to criticize the “inaction” of U.S. lawmakers on Sunday.
When asked if he thought U.S. President Joe Biden should declare a climate emergency, which would grant him additional powers , Gore replied bluntly. “Mother Nature has already declared this a global emergency,” he told ABC.