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Wildfires across U.S. West force thousands to flee their homes

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Dry brush-covered terrain is seen in the Santa Monica mountains as a fire burned in the hills of Los Angeles today.

LOS ANGELES >> Wildfires forced thousands to flee their homes across the U.S. West during a sweltering, smoke-shrouded holiday weekend of record heat.

The fires today caused evacuations in Glacier National Park in Montana and many other parts of the West; compelled crews to rescue about 140 hikers who had spent the night in the woods after fire broke out along the popular Columbia River Gorge Trail in Oregon; and led firefighters to step up efforts to protect a 2,700-year-old grove of giant sequoia encroached by flames near Yosemite National Park in California.

A sudden gusty series of rainstorms allowed Los Angeles, however, to cancel evacuation orders for a wildfire that the mayor called the largest in the city’s history and sent beach umbrellas and toy shovels bouncing down Southern California beaches late today.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti had declared a local emergency earlier today and Gov. Jerry Brown did the same on the state level for Los Angeles County after the wildfire destroyed three homes and threatened hillside neighborhoods. More than a thousand firefighters battled flames that chewed through more than 9 square miles (23 kilometers) of brush-covered mountains.

By evening, however, the day’s record heat in Los Angeles had eased and a spate of brief storms even brought a bit of rain to the burning slopes, slowing the progress of the wildfire. Authorities were able to cancel the evacuation orders that had been issued for three cities — Los Angeles, Burbank and Glendale — and allow all of the 1,400 people who had fled to return to their homes.

Conditions slowing the blaze could change again “in a moment’s notice, and the winds can accelerate very quickly,” Los Angeles Fire Capt. Ralph Terrazas warned, however. “There is a lot of fuel out there left to burn.”

Officials were keeping an eye on thunderstorms, which were bringing welcome bursts of rain but also the risk of flash floods, mudslides and lightning. Beachgoers in Santa Barbara filmed one sudden storm there that sent palm trees flapping and toddlers chasing beach toys that the wind was blowing down the beach.

The high at Los Angeles International Airport reached 97 degrees Fahrenheit (36 degrees Celsius) today, topping the previous mark of 92 (33 Celsius), set in 1982. Records were also set in parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, where the temperature hit 101 degrees (38 Celsius).

San Francisco residents, meanwhile, stifled under a third day of a rare heat wave in the coastal city, although highs in the San Francisco Bay Area fell today from records in the 100s Fahrenheit (high 30s Celsius) set the previous two days.

“I went to Home Depot, Walgreens, Office Depot, Target. They were sold out!” downtown office worker Alganesh Ucbayonas said today, detailing her unsuccessful search for an electric fan. “CVS!” she remembered.

Ucbayonas sat at her desk in a building lobby squarely between two whirring fans, both scrounged from her office building’s storage and trained straight at her face.

Fires burning up and down the Sierra Nevada and further to the northwest cast an eerie yellow and gray haze over much of California. Much of the state was under alerts because of poor air quality.

California authorities ordered evacuations for a third small town today in one of the wildfires, a blaze that has burned 9-square-miles (23 square kilometers) near Yosemite.

Firefighters battling that blaze were making it a priority to safeguard the ancient grove of giant sequoia and a pair of historic cabins at the foot of the trees, fire spokeswoman Anne Grandy said. Fire crews had wrapped the two 19th-century cabins and an outhouse in shiny, fire-resistant material to protect them from the flames that had entered the Nelder Grove, Grandy said.

California crews are also protecting homes from a fast-moving wildfire that forced evacuations in Riverside County.

In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee proclaimed a state of emergency across all counties as three major fires closed recreation areas and prompted evacuations.

Flames in Montana’s Glacier National Park prompted officials to evacuate all residents, campers and tourists from one of the most popular areas of the park. The order today affects the Lake McDonald area, the western side of the dizzying Going-to-the Sun Road and some of the most visited trails in the area. The Lake McDonald Lodge, built in 1913, closed last week because of heavy smoke in the area.

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