Cooler Weather Lends Hand in California Wildfire Fight

The CZU August Lightning Complex Fire continues to burn Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, near Bonny Doon, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Favorable weather conditions on Wednesday aided the 15,000 firefighters battling hundreds of lightning-induced wildfires burning across 1.3 million acres in bone-dry California.

Ignited during a freak summer thunderstorm featuring record-high temperatures and widespread dry lightning strikes, an estimated 700 new fires since Aug. 15 have already blackened an area the size of Delaware. The fires ignited California’s wildfire season, which typically reaches a crescendo in September and October, and with resources quickly stretched thin Governor Gavin Newsom moved to secure help from other states. 

The state’s main focus has been several so-called lightning complex fires burning in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. A trio of fires has caused over 100,000 people to flee their homes and simultaneously left millions breathing smoky, unhealthy air.

In welcome news, officials say firefighters are beginning to turn the corner on the various lightning complexes and two dozen wildfires plaguing the Golden State thanks to a hand from Mother Nature.

“The containment numbers on all three of these complexes are definitely continuing to increase,” said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant in an update.

As the state’s record heatwave and thunderstorms relented, the marine layer has returned to parts of the San Francisco Bay Area bringing lower temperatures and higher humidity. Mild winds have also helped clear out smoke and improve visibility for water-dropping helicopters and air tankers.

At over 357,000 acres burned, the LNU Lightning Complex Fire is now officially the third largest fire in state history. Over 2,200 firefighters have been assigned to the blaze which has killed four and destroyed 978 homes and structures in Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Solano and Yolo counties. As of Wednesday, the LNU Fire was 33% contained.

To the southeast, the SCU Fire has blackened 365,000 acres and destroyed 31 structures in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa and Merced counties. Nearly two dozen crews and 1,600 firefighters have battled what is now the second largest fire in state history 25% contained.

On the coast, the CZU Fire has torched redwood forests and burned west to the sandy beaches of Santa Cruz County. Newsom has said that blaze exhibits the hallmarks of climate change,

The fire forced the evacuation of University of California, Santa Cruz, as well as over 77,000 people in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties. It has ripped through California’s oldest state park in Big Basin Redwoods, home to ancient coastal redwoods, charring 80,000 acres, 537 structures and is 19% contained.

Newsom flew over the rare coastal wildfire last weekend and called it “extraordinary” in a press briefing Wednesday.

“It’s generated a lot of stress for no other reason than in recorded history we’ve never seen a fire of this size and scope in this region of the state,” Newsom said. “A demonstrable example of the reality — not just the assertion, not just the point of view — the reality of climate change in this state.” 

Officials said it was critical for firefighters to continue making progress over the next few days as warmer temperatures, gusty winds and the potential of thunderstorms are expected in parts of Northern California this weekend.

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. Along with fewer fires, last year saw much smaller incidents as 2019’s largest fire is dwarfed by each of the three current lightning complexes. The state is on pace to set a new record for acres burned in a year, Newsom said.  

“We are putting every single asset we possibly can…to battle these historic wildfires,” Newsom said.

Firefighters’ progress has done little to improve air quality for the Bay Area and the Central Valley, which are surrounded on several sides by wildfires as depicted by recent satellite images from NASA.

Residents in the Sacramento area were breathing air unhealthy for sensitive groups Wednesday afternoon and experts predict marginally worse readings on Thursday.

In the Bay Area, home to nearly 8 million, air quality was unhealthy in places like Sebastopol and Gilroy and moderate in Oakland, Concord and Vallejo. Officials noted that while conditions have improved in some parts of the Bay Area, shifting winds can quickly decrease air quality.

“It’s going to be another smoky day,” said Berlant, delivering the bad news to Californians on behalf of Cal Fire.

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