Lightning-Sparked Wildfires Tear Across Northern California

Seen in a long exposure photograph, embers burn along a hillside as the LNU Lightning Complex fires tear through unincorporated Napa County, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. Fire crews across the region scrambled to contain dozens of wildfires sparked by lightning strikes as a statewide heat wave continues. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — With California’s bright skies once again shrouded in an apocalyptic haze of ash and smoke, Governor Gavin Newsom on Wednesday said relief is incoming from neighboring states to help fight the over 360 active wildfires in the state.

More than 20 major wildfires are burning across the Golden State, most sparked by rare summer thunderstorms that hit Northern California last weekend. Newsom said the more than 10,000 lightning strikes have stoked an already active wildfire season raging during the double whammy of a record-setting heatwave and a pandemic. 

“We’re experiencing fires the likes of which we haven’t seen in many, many years,” Newsom said, adding that the potential for the number to rise is “very real.”  

California has already tallied 6,700 wildfires so far this year, 2,700 more than at this point in 2019. While historically the fall is the most harrowing stretch of the wildfire season, the combination of a below-average winter rain and widespread dry-lightning strikes this week has put the state on edge months earlier than normal. As a result, Newsom says crews from Texas, Nevada and Arizona are on the way to help state firefighting agencies. 

Crews are battling a smorgasbord of fires in Northern California, many of which have little to no containment and have forced evacuation orders in over a dozen counties.

In California’s Wine Country, a trio of fires linked to lightning strikes have burned over 46,000 acres and destroyed 50 structures in Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties since Monday. The so-called LNU Lightning Complex spread east overnight and is currently burning through parts of Vacaville, population 100,000.

To the south, the SCU Lightning Complex — the largest of the 23 major wildfires — has burned over 85,000 acres in the San Francisco Bay Area and Central Valley. In just one day, the complex has spread through Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties and was just 5% contained as of Wednesday morning.

The complex consists of 20 separate fires charring steep canyons full of trees and brush that haven’t burned in recent years. Increasing onshore winds pushed the fire east overnight and nearly 600 firefighters are on the blaze.

Another lightning complex is growing in nearby San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, triggering evacuations for over 22,000 people. The fires spread overnight due to low humidity and high nighttime temperatures, marching toward homes in the wildland-urban interface. 

Millions of residents woke up Wednesday to dull orange skies along with ash flurries. The mixture of smoke, ash and smog resulted in some of the worst air quality in the nation.

The morning sun can barely be seen through thick wildfire smoke in Modesto, Calif., more than 40 miles from the nearest blaze. (Courthouse News photo / William Dotinga)

“The air quality will be very poor for the foreseeable future given rapid spread of fires and stagnant air mass. We will post a smoke coverage update soon,” the Bay Area National Weather Service said in a tweet. 

San Francisco Mayor London Breed urged residents to stay indoors both to avoid the unhealthy, smoky air and to help slow the spread of Covid-19.

“In a normal year, we’d be able to focus entirely on these air quality challenges. But as you know we are not in normal years, we are living in Covid,” Breed said Wednesday during a briefing on air quality in the city. “The effects of climate change are already being felt and sadly we know events like these are going to become more common with drier weather and hotter temperatures.”

Winds have shifted throughout the day, causing air quality in the city to fluctuate between orange — unhealthy for sensitive groups — and red, unhealthy for all groups.

“The reality is that as we enter wildfire season and changing wind patterns, we will be living with both the intersections of Covid-19, poor air quality and likely heat events for some time,” said Public Health director Grant Colfax during the briefing.

Outdoor Covid-19 testing sites will remain open, Colfax said. He also urged people to keep distance from people they do not live with and wear a mask while outdoors.

Homeless outreach workers are handing out N95 masks to homeless people they meet on the street who do not have them, according to city officials.

Meanwhile various fires continue to burn in Southern California, including the Ranch Fire which the Los Angeles County Fire Department says was caused by a man camping along a riverbed. The fire started last week in the Angeles National Forest and is 19% contained.

On the northwest side of the forest, the Lake Fire has burned over 25,000 acres and 21 structures since it broke out Aug. 12. The fires are burning on federal land in dense chaparral and pine forests ranging from 1,200 to 10,000 feet in elevation, sending visible pyrocumulus clouds above Los Angeles County.

“We’re putting everything we have on these fires, they’re stretched all across the state of California and we’re now getting the support of some of our partners in the Western United States,” Newsom said of the spate of wildfires.

Newsom has declared a statewide emergency to free up resources for the various fires and allow for additional federal assistance.

The massive and complicated firefight comes as the state continues to deal with an energy crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.

After a weekend of rolling blackouts, Newsom reiterated Wednesday the state was suffering from increased electrical demand and lack of supply. He says while intentional blackouts were avoided the last two nights, state officials are planning for another batch Wednesday afternoon as triple-digit temperatures continue in many parts of the state.

As for the pandemic, the state reported over 6,000 new cases and has now tested over 10 million. Newsom said the state’s rolling 14-day positivity rate is 6.6% and that hospitalizations are down 17% over the last two weeks. He added Placer County was removed from the state’s coronavirus watchlist and that San Francisco is expected to come off in the next day or two.

Despite the many trials facing the nation’s largest state, Newsom noted California’s reputation for meeting challenges and said it wouldn’t panic.

“It’s a dynamic period of time,” Newsom said. “This is an incredibly resilient state, we will get through this moment in time as we have in the past.”

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