The “Oak Fire” – described as “explosive” by authorities – broke out on Friday in Mariposa County, near Yosemite National Park and its giant sequoias.
It has already moved about 4,800 acres, destroyed ten properties and damaged five others, according to a bulletin Saturday from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Several roads were cut off and many areas were ordered to be evacuated, while the fire, in “extreme activity” and fought by more than 500 firefighters, was not controlled on Saturday, according to the same source.
Officials quoted by the Los Angeles Times newspaper estimated that it would probably take a week to forget about it. More than 6,000 people have been evacuated, according to a spokesman for the California fire department, adding that employees from various departments have flocked from across the state to lend a hand.
California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a “state of emergency” in Mariposa County on Saturday, due to a situation of “grave danger to the safety of life and property”. This allows especially for the release of funds.
According to a climatologist from the University of California in Los Angeles, Daniel Swain, the fire “spread in almost all directions”, “in a context of high fuel load and severe drought”.
The American West has experienced wildfires of unprecedented size and intensity in recent years, with a marked extension of the fire season, a phenomenon scientists attribute to climate change.
Witnesses posted pictures on social media of a huge, impressive whirlwind of thick smoke rising from the forest, like a tornado, a dangerous pyrocumulus phenomenon that can ignite a fire.
This fire is one of the most dramatic consequences of the heat wave that affected the United States this weekend, in a local area between California and Oregon in the west but more in the center and northeast.
Temperatures in these two regions are expected to rise on Sunday at the earliest. “From the southern plains to the east, temperatures will become more oppressive,” the National Weather Service (NWS) announced Saturday night, also warning of violent storms.
The sweltering heat was especially felt in the capital Washington, where the temperature flirted with the symbolic bar of 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) that should be reached or exceeded on Sunday for the first time in years. New York was not spared, with temperatures nearing 35 degrees.
Temperatures may also reach 43 degrees in parts of Utah (west), Arizona (south) and the northeast, according to the NWS. The heat wave has already led to an increase in the number of calls to emergency services for discomfort related to high temperatures.
“Heat is the number one weather-related killer in the United States. It’s more than any other environmental-related cause of death,” Joseph Kralicek, director of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s emergency management agency, told CNN.
In Boston, where Mayor Michelle Wu declared a “state of heat-related emergency”, providing for the opening of municipal areas to cool down and swimming pools open longer, it could be 37 degrees on Sunday.
This week, US President Joe Biden reiterated the “clear and immediate danger” posed by climate change, “an existential threat to our country and the world”. But its room for maneuver is limited by Congress and the Supreme Court.
The planet has already recorded many heat waves this year, such as in July in Western Europe or in India in March-April. Their proliferation is an unmistakable sign of climate change, according to scientists.