Record-Breaking Heat Fueling Wildfires Across California

A helicopter drops water on the Lake Hughes Fire in Angeles National Forest north of Santa Clarita, Calif. A huge forest fire that prompted evacuations north of Los Angeles flared up around noon Saturday, Aug. 15, sending up a cloud of smoke as it headed toward thick, dry brush in the Angeles National Forest. Evacuation orders remain in effect for the western Antelope Valley because erratic winds in the forecast could push the fire toward homes. Record-breaking heat is possible through the weekend, with triple-digit temperatures and unhealthy air predicted for many parts of the state. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)

(CN) — The combination of wild weather and searing temperatures has sparked wildfires up and down the Golden State this week, prompting residents to flee their homes amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing threat of rolling blackouts across California’s maxed-out power grid.

Over the weekend, the agency responsible for the state’s power grid ordered widespread rolling blackouts that plunged over 410,000 homes and businesses into the dark during the heatwave.

Record-breaking temperatures caused the California Independent System Operator to issue a stage 2 emergency Monday, but that was rescinded by Tuesday due to cloud cover and conservation efforts by residents, the agency said in a statement.

“Conservation efforts during these times can prevent more dire measures, such as rotating power outages, or generator equipment failures that can lead to more serious unplanned losses of power,” California ISO said in a statement Tuesday.

And indeed, later Tuesday afternoon the agency reissued its stage 2 alert and “urgently” asked customers to conserve energy immediately to avoid power outages.

“If system conditions do not improve, the ISO will declare a Stage 3 Emergency, including rotating power outages,” according to the ISO in an advisory.

From a temporary cooling center setup in a library in downtown Sacramento, Governor Gavin Newsom said the next two evenings pose a “critical” test for the state’s grid. He said California’s ability to buy supplies from neighboring states has been hampered as they are also searing in triple-digit temperatures.

Asked about a baseless claim made Tuesday by President Donald Trump that California Democrats “have intentionally implemented rolling blackouts,” Newsom noted the ISO is “federally regulated” and responsible for grid decisions, not politicians.  

The Democratic governor added the state will “accelerate” its search for ways to increase and diversify the grid’s capacity to prevent future blackouts and that it is working with a private consulting firm for solutions.

“We’ve got to obviously look to smooth out the acuity of these heat shocks in anticipation that we’re going to experience many more of these in the next months, years, potentially decades going forward,” Newsom said.

Roughly 25,000 acres are burning in the Santa Clara Lightning Complex Fire, darkening the skies across Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

North of the San Francisco Bay Area, the Hennessy Fire has so far scorched 2,700 acres in Napa County. Persistent lightning also led to the Gamble and 15-10 fires, which have so far burned 5,000 and 4,500 acres, respectively, and are zero percent contained as of Tuesday afternoon.

In Southern California, Los Angeles County has two fires burning in the Angeles National Forest. The Ranch Fire is burning in the southern section of the forest north of the city of Azusa, which the LA County Fire Department said was caused by a man camping along a nearby riverbed.

Osmin Palencia, 36, reportedly turned himself into police and was charged with one felony count of arson during a state emergency and arson of a forest, according to the LA County District Attorney’s Office. Prosecutors said he started the fire during an argument.

The Ranch Fire has burned 3,900 acres as firefighters battle in triple-digit heat. It is 19% contained.

On the northwest side of the Angeles National Forest, the Lake Fire has burned over 21,000 acres since it broke out Aug. 12. The fire burned in a section of the forest that had not seen any fire activity in the last 80 to 100 years and last week swept through a rural residential neighborhood. The blaze grew to 10,000 acres in less than a day and the cause of the fire remains unknown.

A 3,000-acre wildfire in Ventura County has prompted evacuations for eastern parts of the county and two firefighters were reported injured. The Holser Fire is just 20% contained according to the Ventura County Fire Department.

In the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, several forest fires were ignited by passing lightning storms including the 15,000-acre Red Salmon complex. Those fires are burning in rugged and remote terrain and continue to steadily grow, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

On Tuesday, Newsom issued a statewide emergency due to the wildfires and baking heat.

“We are deploying every resource available to keep communities safe as California battles fires across the state during these extreme conditions,” said Newsom in a statement.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made evacuations especially challenging. Many people forced to leave their homes have been asked to remain in their cars at evacuation centers, as the Red Cross says it cannot establish overnight evacuation shelters where people would normally sleep in cots in close proximity.

A persistent heatwave is also making life miserable for firefighters and residents. The National Weather Service has issued excessive heat warnings for much of California through the weekend, though extended forecasts have much of the state baking in temperatures at or above 100 through the end of August.

“This weather is remarkable but then again it’s what many had predicted and what many of us had come to experience here in California for some time,” Newsom said.

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