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Nearly 1.5 Million Acres Are Burning Across the West: What You Need to Know Right Now
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Nearly 1.5 Million Acres Are Burning Across the West: What You Need to Know Right Now

Kirsten Akens, Gawker Media

Justin Sullivan / GettyImages

While states in the South struggle with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and the potential damage-to-come of Hurricane Irma, the hot and too-dry West continues to battle a mass of post-Labor Day wildfires unlike any other year. Flames have displaced families, destroyed homes and property, closed highways and roads, and threatened iconic natural areas and national landmarks. Here's what you need to know.

The stats, as of 9/7/17:

Seventy-six fires are actively burning across California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, according to the National Interagency Fire Center . Montana, with 21, and Oregon, with 18, top the list. Of these fires, only one is currently contained.

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Nearly 1.5 million acres are burning. More than half of that acreage is in Montana and Oregon.

Thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes from Portland, Oregon and Missoula, Montana, to Los Angeles and lots of small towns in between.

The smoke from these fires is not only choking the burn areas, but is crossing North America all the way out into the Atlantic , affecting air quality for millions of Americans along the way. Fires have also dropped ash on neighboring cities, such as Seattle and Portland.

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Most of the fires were caused by lightening strikes (and exceptional drought), though some - such as the Quarry Fire in Washington, and the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia Gorge - have been confirmed to be human-caused.

National forests and scenic areas have taken (and continue to take) a hit

In Montana's Glacier National Park, the Sprague Fire engulfed the historic Sperry Chalet, built by the Great Northern Railway and open for service in 1914, on Aug. 31. "We are sad to inform you of the loss of Sperry Chalet," writes the proprietor on the chalet's website . "We are thankful for the bravery of the firefighters that worked to save this cherished building."

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The park's 104-year-old Lake McDonald Lodge has also been threatened, with firefighters laying 9,000 feet of sprinkler lines around the property to help create a fire break. As of the evening of Sept. 6, according to InciWeb, the governmental incident information system, the Sprague Fire is 35% contained , and while air quality is poor, "heavy localized smoke is causing a reduction in fire behavior."

The Railroad Fire near Yosemite National Park continues to threaten the 2,700-year-old giant sequoias of the Sierra National Forest. As of this morning, InciWeb reports that this fire is 43% contained : "Increased humidity assisted in slower fire activity through the night, however, trends in weather toward the weekend will shift to warmer and dryer temperatures."

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Seventy miles of the popular Pacific Crest Trail near Mt. Rainier have been closed due to the Norse Peak and Sawmill Ridge fires. As of this morning, InciWeb reports the fire is just 8% contained , currently burning 43,000 acres, and is moving north at a moderate rate, threatening the Crystal Mountain Ski area.

In Washington and Oregon's Columbia River Gorge, the Eagle Creek Fire spread 15 miles on Sept. 5, reaching downstream from Multnomah Falls. The Willamette Week reported yesterday that "Multnomah Falls is still green and mostly unscathed" thanks to firefighters who battled through the night on Monday to keep the area, including a century-old lodge, safe.

Where there's fire, there's smoke

While heavy smoke can help firefighters as it dampens flames, it's harmful to individuals living and breathing nearby, and even in farther-flung neighboring areas.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that those at greatest risk from wildfire smoke include people with heart or lung diseases, older adults, and children, and gives these tips for decreasing your risk:

Check the air quality where you live. The Environmental Protection Agency's AirNow.gov will give you the current conditions and daily forecasts from "Good" to "Hazardous" based on your zip code, as well as recommendations as to whether you should limit outdoor exposure and, if so, how much.

Consult local visibility guides. "Some communities have monitors that measure the amount of particles in the air," says the CDC. "In the western United States, some states and communities have guidelines to help people determine if there are high levels of particulates in the air by how far they can see."

Keep indoor air as clean as possible , if you're advised to stay inside. Keep your windows and doors closed, run your air conditioner with the fresh-air intake closed, or seek shelter elsewhere if you don't have an A/C.

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Do not rely on dust masks for protection. The CDC says the types of masks found at hardware stores are designed to capture large particles like sawdust, not the small particles from smoke.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers more advice on everything from how to minimize smoke in your car to choosing (and using) an appropriate respirator in its 2016 Wildfire Smoke guide .

When will the fires end?

InciWeb estimates containment dates for all fires it tracks, and most of the larger fires suggest late September to early October. However, these dates can change, for better or worse, depending on weather and firefighting capabilities.

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