California firefighters made slow progress on Monday battling a raging wildfire near Yosemite National Park that will force some residents to evacuate “with just their shirts on their backs,” officials said.
The latest fire – which has already forced thousands to evacuate – comes as much of the United States continues to be gripped by a sweltering heatwave.
The Oak Fire in Mariposa County has burned 16,791 acres and is 10 percent contained so far, Cal Fire, the state fire department, said Monday.
“What we’re seeing in this fire is very representative of what we’ve seen in fires across western California over the past two years,” Jon Heggie, a Cal Fire battalion commander, told CNN.
“These fires are burning at such a rate and intensity that they are extremely challenging and extremely dangerous for both the public and firefighters,” Heggie said.
“It’s moving so fast that people don’t have much time and sometimes they just have to evacuate with their shirts on their backs,” he said.
The oak fire has forced the evacuation of several thousand people so far, officials said, and the hot and dry conditions and steep, rugged terrain are making extinguishing efforts difficult.
More than 2,000 firefighters, supported by 17 helicopters, were deployed to battle the Oak Fire that broke out near central California’s vast Yosemite National Park on Friday.
– ‘Direct consequence’ of climate change –
California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Mariposa County on Saturday, citing “extreme threats to the safety of people and property.”
In recent years, California and other parts of the western United States have been ravaged by massive and fast-spreading wildfires caused by years of drought and a warming climate.
“What I can tell you is that this is a direct result of climate change,” Heggie told CNN.
“You can’t have a 10-year drought in California and expect things to stay the same,” he said. “We are now paying the price for this 10-year drought.
“This drought is driving what we call megafires.”
Evidence of global warming could also be seen elsewhere in the country as 60 million Americans were under a heat warning on Monday.
Temperatures of 100 or more degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius) are forecast in parts of eastern Kansas and Oklahoma to southern Missouri and northern Arkansas.
Not even the normally cool Pacific Northwest will escape the widespread heat, with temperatures set to reach record highs in some areas.
Cities have opened cooling stations and increased outreach to vulnerable communities such as the homeless and those without air conditioning.
Various regions of the world have been hit by extreme heat waves in recent months, such as western Europe in July and India in March-April, events scientists say are a dead giveaway of a warming climate.
The extreme weather prompted former Vice President Al Gore, a tireless climate advocate, to issue a stark warning on Sunday about “inaction” by US lawmakers.
When asked if he thought US President Joe Biden should declare a climate emergency, which would give him additional political powers, Gore was blunt.
“Mother Nature has already declared it a global emergency,” Gore told ABC.
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