California Wildfires Blacken 1.2 Million Acres in Nine Days, With No End in Sight

Flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fires jump Butts Canyon Rd. on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020, as firefighters work to contain the blaze in unincorporated Lake County. The fire has killed four people, destroyed 870 structures and scorched more than 350,000 acres according to Cal Fire. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Following a weekend of improved weather conditions across much of the state, California firefighters are gaining on the series of historic wildfires that have burned an area the size of Rhode Island in just over a week.

Citing the “mesmerizing” efforts of California and out-of-state firefighting agencies, Governor Gavin Newsom said it was crucial for crews to continue progress over the 17 major fires in the coming days before expected high winds return next weekend. 

“We’re deploying every resource at our disposal,” Newsom said of the firefight being aided by states like Texas, Washington, Kansas, Idaho and Montana.

Already ahead of schedule as many of the state’s largest and most destructive fires occur in September and October, the spate of August wildfires has charred over 1.2 million acres in nine days.

Most of the blazes sparked during a rare and potent siege of thunderstorms that included over 13,000 lightning strikes but very little rain. The storms have been traced to remnants of Pacific hurricanes and another batch of lightning Sunday night sparked new fires in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. 

While the recent thunderstorms thankfully pushed around the fire-ravaged San Francisco Bay Area, Newsom said lightning sparked at least 10 new fires overnight and warned the total will go up as reconnaissance in the Sierra Nevada is completed.

“There’s a lot of sleeper fires we expect to discover,” Newsom said during a daily update. 

There are more than 625 fires currently burning in the state, but the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) is focused on a trio of “lightning complexes” burning across the Bay Area and surrounding counties.

At over 350,000 acres burned, the LNU Lightning Complex Fire is now officially the second largest fire in state history. Over 1,800 firefighters have been assigned to the blaze which has killed four and destroyed 870 homes and structures in Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Solano and Yolo counties.

“The size and complexity of this fire is not one that we’ve seen in times past,” said Cal Fire Unit Chief Jones during a briefing.

The LNU Fire is the result of several merged fires and last week caused major evacuations in portions of cities like Vacaville and Fairfield. With television crews rolling last week, flames jumped across one of the state’s busiest freeways at rush hour as residents and commuters sought escape.  

Efforts to extinguish the massive Wine Country fire by air have been hampered in recent days by a persistent layer of thick smoke that has reduced visibility for air tankers and helicopters. However, firefighters made progress over the weekend and have pushed containment to 22%, allowing residents in places like Fairfield and Calistoga to return to their homes.

Resources continue to be stretched thin as the state is simultaneously fighting another lightning complex of similar size in the SCU Fire, which has blackened 347,000 acres in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa and Merced counties. The complex consists of 20 separate fires and has caused smoky skies and extremely unhealthy air in the Bay Area and Central Valley.

As of Monday morning, the SCU Fire was 10% contained and had burned 12 structures; it is now California’s third largest ever wildfire. 

Also of major concern is the CZU Fire burning south of San Francisco in the majestic Santa Cruz Mountains where traditionally wildfires have been few and far between. 

The fire has caused the evacuation of University of California, Santa Cruz as well as over 75,000 people in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties. It has also ripped through California’s oldest state park in Big Basin Redwoods, home to ancient coastal redwoods.

The region’s reliable wildfire shield has been overwhelmed by years of drought, lightning, low humidity and record-high temperatures over the last 10 days. Newsom says the coastal wildfire is another indicator of California’s warming climate.

“The forests and redwoods have simply never seen forest fires because of the weather conditions,” Newsom said after touring the fire and evacuation centers. “We are dealing with different climate conditions that are precipitating fires the likes of which we have never seen in modern recorded history, in dense forests that are well covered and have been historically immune from significant fires.”

Newsom said the state is ramping up support to the CZU fire and that containment has been increased to 13%.

The fires are spearheading a severe start to California’s notorious season, as the state has already seen 2,700 more fires than this time last year.

All of the largest fires in 2020 started in August, and the state has directed over 14,000 firefighters and 2,400 engines to the assorted blazes. The fires have combined to kill seven people and ruin 1,200 structures.    

The state’s largest fire in 2019, the Kincade Fire, burned 77,000 acres. According to Cal Fire, a total of 259,000 acres burned across the state in 2019. 

Meanwhile the pandemic has made escaping wildfires more complicated as counties are being forced to find ways to create distance between people at evacuation centers.

Shelters are taking the temperature of anyone entering their sites as well as requiring masks and installing air purifiers. In addition, 1,500 fire evacuees have been placed in 31 different motels across the state.

Newsom, who has toured multiple evacuation sites, said he’s confident the additional measures will help prevent the spread of Covid-19 among people displaced by the fires.

Along with progress on the lightning complex fires, California saw more improvement in its fight against the novel coronavirus over the weekend as hospitalizations and counties on the state’s Covid-19 watchlist continue to drop. 

Orange, Napa, Calaveras, Mono and Sierra counties all came off the watchlist over the weekend, leaving 35 left. Counties on the list are prohibited from allowing indoor dining and shopping and can’t open schools unless they apply and receive a waiver from the state.

With major counties like San Francisco, San Diego and Orange coming off the list in the last week, Newsom told reporters new guidance regarding the potential for businesses, schools and churches to reopen in those counties will come this week.

The total number of hospitalizations due to Covid-19 (4,467) represents a 20% decrease compared to two weeks ago while the patients in intensive care have dropped 19%. The state continues to test an average of more than 100,000 residents per day, but Newsom noted the wildfires are disrupting many testing centers. Overall, the state’s 14-day testing positivity rate is 6.5% and the 7-day is 5.6%.

The Democratic governor applauded the state’s efforts in fighting off two disasters at the same time.

“Progress is being made across the spectrum,” Newsom said confidently.

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