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UPDATE 2-Crews fight to save Mount Wilson Observatory as smoke spreads as far as Europe

17 Sep 2020 / 06:06 H.

    (Updates with battle to save observatory, adds context and details, changes headline)

    By Deborah Bloom and Brad Brooks

    PORTLAND, Ore., Sept 16 (Reuters) - Fire crews have fended off a blaze threatening the historic Mount Wilson Observatory, as wildfires of unprecedented scope in the U.S. West spread smoke across the nation and even into Europe on Wednesday.

    Dozens of fires have burned some 4.5 million acres (1.8 million hectares) in Oregon, California, and Washington state since August, ravaging several small towns, destroying thousands of homes, and killing at least 34 people.

    The fires have thrust a debate about climate change to the forefront of the election, with President Donald Trump downplaying the role a warming planet could have in the devastation during a visit to California this week, and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden calling Trump a "climate arsonist" and ignoring a "central crisis" facing the nation.

    Fire officials say the Bobcat Fire, which has been burning an area of national forest northeast of Los Angeles since September was no longer an immediate threat to incinerate the Mount Wilson Observatory.

    "I was telling people yesterday (Tuesday) that the defense of the Mount Wilson observatory was taking on the feel of a mini-Alamo," John Clearwater, public affairs officer for Angeles National Forest, told Reuters.

    Twelve firefighting crews worked to protect the site, and planes flew within 500 feet of it to fight the blaze. "It would have been devastating if we had lost that observatory," he said.

    But the blaze was still only at 3% containment and behaving erratically, fire officials say, and authorities have ordered evacuations in the area.

    The West Coast wildfires, which officials and scientists have described as unprecedented in scope and ferocity, have filled the region's skies with smoke and soot, compounding a public health crisis already posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

    Scientists tracked the smoke as far away as Europe. The European Union's Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) is monitoring the scale and intensity of the fires and the transport of their smoke across the United States and beyond.

    "The fact that these fires are emitting so much pollution into the atmosphere that we can still see thick smoke over 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles) away reflects just how devastating they have been in their magnitude and duration," CAMS Senior Scientist Mark Parrington said in a statement.

    STATE RESOURCES STRAPPED

    The simultaneous burning of dozens of fires along the West Coast has stretched the resources of the three states to their limit, particularly in Oregon, where fires rarely impact the green Cascade Mountains in the way they have this year.

    "You can't fight a 20-foot wall of fire that's multiple miles wide with a couple of fire engines," said Shannon Pettner, a Battalion Chief with Oregon's Sweet Home Fire Department.

    Pettner has been helping beat back the state's largest wildfire this season - the Beachie Creek Fire, also known as the Santiam Fire. As a local, she said the loss hits on a personal level.

    "Places that we would take our children camping or go and visit, we've seen those altered permanently... we won't see those places look the same probably in my lifetime," Pettner said.

    Trump on Tuesday night approved a request from Oregon's governor for a federal disaster declaration, bolstering federal assistance for the state. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said on Wednesday it had allocated $1.2 million in mission assignments to bring relief to Oregon.

    Eight deaths have been confirmed during the past week in Oregon, with search teams still scouring incinerated towns for the missing.

    In California, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) said on Wednesday that 17,000 firefighters were still battling 25 major fires, and the state's death toll stood at 25.

    The fires roared to life in California in mid-August, and erupted across Oregon and Washington around Labor Day last week, many of them sparked by catastrophic lightning storms and stoked by record-breaking heatwaves and bouts of howling winds.

    Weather conditions improved early this week, enabling firefighters to begin to make headway in efforts to contain and tamp down the blazes.

    (Reporting by Brad Brooks, Deborah Bloom and Gabriella Borter; Writing by Will Dunham and Bill Tarrant; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Rosalba O'Brien and Diane Craft)

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