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California’s Dixie Fire destroys homes as blazes continue to rage across the West

Homes and properties were destroyed Saturday as the Dixie Fire continued to rage in Northern California, officials in the state said.

The blaze, 20 percent of which had been contained Saturday, has charred more than 181,000 acres in Plumas and Butte counties, consuming more than a dozen homes and properties, as it has torn through the region, officials said.

The raging fire and heavy smoke have led to evacuation orders in several communities and along the west shore of Lake Almanor.

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Elsewhere, the Tamarack Fire continued to burn through timber and threaten communities south of Lake Tahoe on both sides of the California-Nevada border. The air quality in the area has deteriorated to very unhealthy levels.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for four northern counties as flames spread Friday, saying the wildfires were causing “conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property.”

Many fires are burning across the U.S. West, where extremely dry conditions and heat waves tied to climate change have made them difficult to fight.

Firefighters from New Mexico walk toward the northwest edge of the Bootleg Fire while working to build a containment line Friday.Nathan Howard / AP

Nearly 90 large fires had scorched more than 1.4 million acres across 13 states as of Saturday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Oregon’s Bootleg Fire — the country’s largest inferno — was nearly halfway surrounded Saturday as more than 2,200 firefighters made progress corralling it, officials said.

There has been so much smoke from the fires in the West that it is helping firefighters gain ground on the Bootleg Fire by blocking sunlight, officials said Saturday.

“It’s called ‘smoke shading,’ and it’s basically put a lid on the lower atmosphere for now, blocking sunlight and creating cooler, more stable surface conditions,” said Eric Schoening, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City. The phenomenon, however, is unpredictable, and the area was still under red-flag warnings over the weekend.

Pam Brown grieves her losses from the Bootleg Fire in Sycan Estates, Ore., on Saturday. Mathieu Lewis-Rolland / Reuters

While the growth of the fire finally slowed, thousands of homes in southern Oregon remained threatened. Extreme fire behavior and an unstable atmosphere created by the Bootleg Fire formed a tornado in the area last weekend.

“With the critically dry weather and fuels we are experiencing, firefighters are having to constantly reevaluate their control lines and look for contingency options,” Jim Hanson, a fire behavior analyst, said Saturday in a news release from the Oregon Forestry Department.

Also Saturday, fire crews from California and Utah headed to Montana, Gov. Greg Gianforte announced, after five firefighters remained hospitalized after a thunderstorm blew a lightning-caused Montana wildfire back onto them. The extent of their injuries was still unknown.

Another high-priority wildfire, the Alder Creek Fire in southwest Montana, had charred over 6,800 acres and threatened hundreds of homes. It was only 10 percent contained Saturday night.

Firefighters also battled blazes Saturday in north-central Washington, where hundreds of homes are under threat and air quality conditions continue to deteriorate.

While a chance of scattered thunderstorms over the weekend could offer some respite across California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and other Western states, forecasters warned that dry storms that produce little rain but a lot of lightning can spark new blazes.

The smoke from the fierce fires has been carried all the way across the continental U.S. to the East Coast, where air quality alerts were issued.

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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