California Wildfires Have Blackened 771,000 Acres This Week

This NASA satellite image shows a 1,200-mile trail of smoke generated by California’s wildfires. The plume stretches from well off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, all the way to Pocatello, Idaho. (Image courtesy NASA)

(CN) — Massive wildfires in California, most sparked by thousands of lightning strikes and exacerbated by an intense heatwave, have scorched 771,000 acres this week alone, Governor Gavin Newsom said Friday while calling for a federal disaster declaration to supplement multistate aid for the more than 12,000 firefighters battling blazes statewide.

The number of wildfires currently burning in the Golden State grew to at least 560 on Friday, up from 400 the day before, as high temperatures and more than 12,000 lightning strikes in the last three days have intensified the flames.

The largest collection of fires, the SCU Lightning Complex, has burned nearly 230,000 acres in Santa Clara and Stanislaus counties in less than three days. The blaze is 10% contained, according to Cal Fire.

To the north, the LNU Lightning Complex fire in Napa and Sonoma counties has burned at least 219,000 acres and is 7% contained as of Friday.

The SCU and LNU complex fires are the state’s 7th and 10th largest fires in recorded history, respectively, Newsom said in a press conference with fire and emergency management officials on Friday.

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick called on residents to take seriously the current safety warnings in effect and to leave their homes when ordered to do so or when they feel unsafe.

“Our job is to get the public out of harm’s way,” Essick said, adding that residents should follow emergency response alerts for the most current evacuation orders. “You remaining in those areas could hamper firefighting efforts. Please heed the warnings as they come out.”

Half a dozen U.S. states have contributed fire engines, aircraft, logistical support and personnel to California’s firefighting efforts, including Oregon and Arizona which sent 25 and 10 fire engines, respectively, Newsom said.

The Democratic governor seeks a federal disaster declaration that would open more fiscal and logistic support for firefighting efforts and told reporters he expects President Donald Trump to comply with the request despite his repeated attacks against Newsom’s administration.

“There are no politics in this space,” Newsom said of the state’s battle against wildfires. “We defend our values and we defend facts. But in this time of crisis, we also have to defend the American people. At this point we’re here to save lives. Everybody deserves to be protected.”

Newsom’s comments come after the Trump administration signed off on another Fire Management Assistance Grant, or FMAG, for California from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The program allows local governments to apply for partial federal reimbursements for firefighting costs. The most recent FMAG will help direct resources specifically to suppress the SCU Lightning Complex fire.

The complex is roughly 20 separate fires burning in steep terrain across Contra Costa, Alameda, Santa Clara, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. The fire has burned more than 8,000 homes, fire officials said Friday. 

The state has also received FMAGs to bolster firefighting work in Santa Cruz, San Mateo Napa, Nevada, Lake, Solano, Yolo and Monterey counties. 

Officials announced this week wildfires have killed four people, three in Napa County and one person in Sonoma County. 

The state recorded a fifth death in its fight against the fires; a helicopter pilot died this week after an accident while battling flames near Fresno, Newsom said Friday.

In Southern California, the Lake Fire has burned more than 28,900 acres of thick brush and trees and is 52% contained. 

Flames are burning through an area of the forest that has not seen a fire in 80 to 100 years, meaning thick, plentiful sources of fuel have built up for nearly a century.

In neighboring Riverside County, the Apple Fire has burned over 33,400 acres but was 95% contained as of Friday, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The governor said the state made strides in recent months to reduce fuels in fire-prone areas and more recently has bolstered its firefighting ranks with the hiring of 858 more firefighters and six California Conservation Corps crews in place through October.

The state’s current budget also includes $85 million for permanent firefighting positions and emergency response vehicles and aircraft.  

“We have more people but it’s not enough. We have more aircraft but it’s still not enough,” Newsom said.

California is operating on its highest level of statewide coordination for emergency response as it battles wildfires, an intense heatwave and the coronavirus pandemic.

State health officials announced Friday an additional 5,585 confirmed cases of the virus that causes Covid-19. California’s 14-day positivity rate — a key indicator of community transmission of the virus — is 6.5%. Newsom said Friday that Orange County could soon join Placer and San Diego Counties and come off of a state monitoring list that imposed social restrictions for areas with high rates of transmission.

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