(CN) — California spent the Labor Day weekend broiling under the one-two punch of a brutal heatwave and wildfires burning across the state that forced thousands to flee their homes amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Wildfires have burned over 2 million acres since the start of the year, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) — a new record, with at least two months to go in the 2020 wildfire season.
On Sunday, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency due to the fires and the extreme weather conditions.
The holiday weekend saw tremendous fire activity and more may be on the way as strong winds kicked up in the northern part of the state Tuesday morning.
Fires ring the San Francisco Bay Area and are tearing through several national forests, which were closed across the state due to the extreme fire danger.
“The wildfire situation throughout California is dangerous and must be taken seriously,” said regional forester Randy Moore with the U.S. Forest Service. “Existing fires are displaying extreme fire behavior, new fire starts are likely, weather conditions are worsening, and we simply do not have enough resources to fully fight and contain every fire.”
During a press briefing Tuesday afternoon, Newsom noted over 7,600 fires have blackened 2.3 million acres so far this year. At this time in 2019, roughly 5,000 wildfires had charred just 118,000 acres, he said.
The governor said that unlike last year, an overlap of extreme situations are feeding the 2020 wildfire season.
“Yes, I conclude that climate change has profoundly impacted the reality we are experiencing,” Newsom said.
People fled homes and campgrounds across the state as fires burned near densely populated communities and vacation sites alike.
The Creek Fire started Friday evening and has already burned over 143,000 acres across three counties, making a 15-mile run in a single day, according to the U.S. Forest Service. About 200 campers were airlifted from Wagner Mammoth Pool Campground by the California National Guard when the blaze surrounded them.
In Mendocino County, the Oak Fire has burned over 800 acres of grass, brush, oak and pine trees, according to Cal Fire. That fire was reported Monday afternoon and is blanketing the nearby San Francisco Bay Area with smoke.
Lightning-sparked complex fires continue to burn in Northern California, nearly a month after they began. The CZU August Lightning Complex in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties has burned over 86,000 acres and is 81% contained, according to Cal Fire, but nearly 1,500 structures have been destroyed.
The LNU Lightning Complex, burning over 375,000 acres across Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Colusa, Solano and Yolo counties, is nearly contained. That complex has also destroyed nearly 1,500 structures.
The largest blaze of 2020 so far is the SCU Lightning Complex, which has ripped through nearly 397,000 acres in Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Alameda, Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties. It is 94% contained.
And the Dolan Fire has burned over 73,000 acres about 10 miles south of Big Sur in the Los Padres National Forest.
To the south in San Bernardino County, the El Dorado Fire has burned over 10,000 acres near the city of Yucaipa. Cal Fire says a smoke-releasing “pyrotechnic device” or firework at a gender-reveal party sparked the fire after 10 a.m. Saturday.
“It’s a reminder that the vast majority of fires that we experience on an annual basis come from individuals making bad decisions or by simple neglect and accident,” said Newsom. “It appears to be at this moment an example of another fire that was not Mother Nature but manmade in this case.”
The governor said officials are investigating the incident.
In San Diego County, over 17,000 acres have burned in the Cleveland National Forest as the Valley Fire has spread rapidly and is making its way toward the communities of Corte Madera and communication towers at Mt. Pinos.
Authorities urged residents of foothill communities of the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles County to watch for evacuation notices should a nearby wildfire become a larger threat.
The Bobcat Fire has burned 8,553 acres and is 0% contained as of Tuesday morning, according the U.S. Forest Service, which estimates it will reach full contained by Oct. 15.
The fire, which broke out Sunday afternoon near the Cogswell Dam and West Fork Day Use area, doubled in size from Monday when it had burned 4,600 acres, officials said.
John Vorhaus of Monrovia said in an interview he doesn’t believe the fire is a threat to his community but that he has prepared for his family’s evacuation if necessary.
“I’ve been watching the fire since it broke out the day before yesterday but honestly, I don’t think the fire will be an issue for us in this neighborhood,” Vorhaus said while out on a walk with his dog Jax. “We have a list of materials ready to take and some of it is already deployed into the car.”
The fire is a serious threat for Monrovia resident Mike Janesin, who said he is looking out for evacuation alerts after watching flames kick up the hillside near his home Monday night.
“I take the fires very seriously and they have come at a terrible time with the excessive 100-degree weather,” said Janesin. “If there are evacuations then it has come to a very serious situation. I have no problem evacuating and have prepared a bin of important items to take them in a hurry.”
A marine layer covered the mountains Tuesday but is expected to lift by midday when high winds are forecast to push the fire north and south, officials said.
Fire engines from across LA County combed the foothill communities Tuesday morning, watching for fire activity and alerting residents to the emergency plans in place.
Monrovia and neighboring communities Duarte and Azusa are on notice that they may be ordered to evacuate if the fire spreads south from the mountains.
Residents with large animals can move them to temporary holding centers at the Pomona Fairgrounds and Santa Anita Racetrack.
San Gabriel Canyon Road and the Angeles Crest Highway are closed while officials investigate the cause of the fire.
The closure of the Angeles National Forest due to the fires will be extended until Sept. 14, officials said.
Several national forests in California have been closed due to wildfires, including Los Padres, Inyo, Stanislaus, Sierra and Cleveland. Developed campgrounds and day-use sites on national forest lands are also closed.
Most of the Golden State spent the weekend baking in a record-setting heatwave. The LA County city of Woodland Hills saw thermometers hit 121 degrees Sunday, a record not just for the city but for the whole county.
While temperatures are expected to trend downward beginning Tuesday, strong winds are raking across Northern and Central California and Santa Ana winds are expected to reach Southern California later in the day. A Red Flag warning is in effect with gusts of up to 60 mph in the mountains and passes and up to 40 mph along the coast.
“California is being impacted by a scale and scope that makes this a very challenging time in our state’s history,” said Newsom.
There’s a sense that the extreme weather and catastrophic wildfires are just events to be addressed seasonally or when they occur, but Newsom said officials are engaged in finding long-term and fundamental solutions for the extreme weather and catastrophic wildfires that seem to be hitting California the hardest among the rest of the West Coast.
“I have no patience, I say this lovingly, not as an ideologue, but as someone who prides himself on being open to argument interested in evidence, but I quite literally have no patience for climate change deniers,” said the Democratic governor.
The extreme heat and fires also put a real strain on the state’s energy grid, Newsom said, noting on average California uses 38,000 megawatts but over the weekend used nearly 47,000 megawatts.
“Obviously, these weather events have put a lot of pressure on our energy supply and energy use,” said Newsom.
Meanwhile, because of increasing winds Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, two of the state’s major utility providers, have either already begun strategic power shutoffs or will begin to do so in the next few days.
But California’s original crisis of 2020 — the coronavirus pandemic — is showing some signs of abating. The state saw 2,676 new confirmed cases reported Tuesday, well short of the 7-day average of 4,302 new cases, and other signs indicate a drop in infections and positive tests returning to labs.
State officials announced five counties have improved enough to reopen gyms, indoor service at restaurants, movie theaters and museums and — in two weeks — limited on-campus learning at schools.
Amador, Orange, Placer, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties moved up from Purple to Red — “widespread” to “substantial” — meaning they reported stabilized infections over a two-week period according to state health officials.
Of California’s 58 counties, 33 are classified as “widespread,” 14 as “substantial,” 9 as “moderate” and just 2 as “minimal.”