This Season, Western Wildfires Are Close By and Running Free

Then, as they looked toward the Cascade Range slopes that rise steeply from the river, they saw the fire surge toward them through the Douglas fir, cedar and hemlock.

“I looked at her and she said, ‘Go now,’ ” said Mr. Brown, 74, a retired truck assembly worker, describing the scramble of their escape. “Scariest thing I’ve ever seen,” Ms. Brown added, standing alongside her husband in an evacuation camp across the river in Washington.

From California to Utah and Montana, thousands of others have also been forced to flee, and evacuation orders were still in place late last week for 23 active fires in four states, with nearly 21,000 firefighters in the field across the region.

Still, at least so far, the year is not a record, with 8.3 million acres burned as of mid-September. More than 10 million acres burned in 2015, the worst fire season in decades. But much of that land, as in previous years, was far from population centers, in remote areas of Alaska or western rangelands.

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Levi Rathjen, 10, was among the residents who fled wildfires in the Northwest and took refuge at a Red Cross center in Stevenson, Wash.

Credit
Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

In stark contrast, this year’s fires are licking at people’s back doors or, in some cases, consuming the doors altogether. While some of that is because the fires are closer to major cities, there is another factor.

“As the West becomes more and more populated, we’re seeing more and more homes being built in these areas; the baby boomers retire and they’re building these homes all over, in natural parts of the landscape,” said Jessica Gardetto, a spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Land Management. “We’re going to see more summers like this.”

Closer proximity to fire also means more bad air, as well as danger. Winds sent choking smoke from the fires into urban areas from Denver to…

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