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Glass Fire: New evacuation orders Sunday as state passes 4 million acres burned

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By Elliott Almond
The Mercury News
(TNS)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Fire crews worked through another hot, dry day in northern Napa County as they continued to try to stop the stubborn Glass Fire, which forced new evacuation orders in California’s Wine Country and helped set a staggering record, with more than 4 million acres burned so far.

“I thought 2018 was horrendous,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection deputy chief Scott McLean said Sunday. “There are really no words to describe it.”

Two years ago, the state saw a then-record 1.67 million acres burn. This year, California passed the 4 million acre milestone — an area larger than the state of Rhode Island — with almost two months left in its fire season.

So far, 63,885 acres have burned in Napa and Sonoma counties due to the Glass Fire, destroying homes and vineyards north of Calistoga and east of St. Helena. As of Sunday morning, the fire was 17% contained, CalFire reported.

Previous evacuation orders were expanded Sunday to include the area from the west bordered by Highway 29 at the Robert Louis Stevenson trailhead, the north by Livermore Road, and the east by Aetna Milne Road. By Sunday afternoon, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office issued an evacuation warning for residents living near the Sonoma and Napa county lines.

CalFire officials sounded optimistic during a Sunday morning briefing because of a forecasted cooling trend coming this week. Incident commander Billy See said crews were developing plans to get evacuees home.

“We’re working on a make safe reentry program,” he said, adding that 12 damage inspection teams were surveying the area. “That is the primary goal of all of this.”

Brian Newman, a fire behavior analyst with CalFire, said the emphasis Sunday was thwarting any new outbreaks in east-west drainage areas that had yet to experience much wind.

Newman had said earlier Sunday in a recorded video provided by CalFire that the current hot spots were along Highway 29 near the Hennessey Fire burn area. The Hennessey Fire ignited Aug. 17 because of lightning and forced more than 17,000 people to evacuate, according to fire officials.

Newman said the current blaze is moving toward the Hennessey Fire scar, “which is helping our efforts there.”

The Glass Fire is one of 23 major fires burning throughout the state during a historic fire season that has drained resources and frayed people’s nerves. The active blazes have consumed some 3.6 million acres, CalFire said Sunday.

The massive August Complex, two huge zones burning in Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity, Tehama, Lake, Colusa and Glenn counties, was at roughly 50% containment, having consumed almost 1 million acres of land.

“The largest fire we’d ever expected to see was the Mendocino Complex” in 2018, which burned about 460,000 acres, McLean said. “Now we’ve doubled that with the August Complex.”

Even as weather conditions began to moderate, Sunday remained a dangerous day of hot weather, strong breezes and low humidity.

Tom Bird, a CalFire incident meteorologist, said a persistent upper-level high-pressure ridge over the West Coast has led to temperatures 15 degrees to 25 degrees above normal.

“We have come under this large, oppressive area of high pressure that has settled over our region and is anchored here and continues to stay in place,” he said during the briefing. “That is the feature that is responsible for this abnormality hot weather. It is affecting all the fires in the region.”

Bird said one problem for fire crews has been warm nights with low relative humidity. The condition has allowed fuels to stay dry at night.

“You compound that day after day after day and it makes things much worse than what is typical,” he said.

Bird said conditions will improve as the winds shift to west and southwest.

“We’re not expecting any wind events to push hard on the fire,” he added.

Temperatures were expected to decrease into the 80s and 70s this week as a marine layer moves in, raising moisture levels. Rain could strongly aid the firefighting efforts later in the week, especially at higher elevations, the National Weather Service said, though that forecast remained far from certain.

“We’re thinking a quarter inch is something we can hang our hat on,” Bird said.

McLean warned that the impending storm will not be a cure-all with months to go this fire season.

“It will help but things can change back to where they were right after if we get dry weather and wind again,” he said. “We’re not going to get out of dry spells until we have several years of significant winters.”

The National Weather Service’s San Francisco Bay Area office reported Sunday morning that warm and dry weather conditions would continue across the interior whereas coastal areas were cooling with a deepening marine layer. Bay Area skies were also noticeably clearer Sunday morning, with air-quality levels in the good to moderate range over much of the South Bay and East Bay.

In Sonoma County, south of Santa Rosa, crews have been aided by some control lines left behind after the deadly 2017 Tubbs Fire, which destroyed thousands of homes in that city and caused 22 deaths.

Since it started on Sept. 27, the fire has destroyed 120 single-family homes, four multi-family residences and one mixed residential and commercial property in Sonoma County. Eight commercial structures have been destroyed, as have 131 minor structures and outbuildings. Meanwhile, 173 single-family homes and one mixed residential and commercial property have been destroyed in Napa County, along with 264 commercial buildings and 123 minor structures.

Further north, the deadly Zogg Fire in Shasta and Tehama counties continued to burn a mix of grass, oak and timber fuels. The fire, which has caused four civilian deaths, has burned 56,305 acres and was 68% contained as of Sunday morning. It has destroyed 196 structures and damaged 26 other buildings. Some evacuation orders along Plantina Road were lifted Sunday morning.

The Dolan Fire, which has burned almost 125,000 acres south of Big Sur since it sparked in late August, was near 90% containment as of Saturday. Fresno County’s Creek Fire was reported at 62% containment at more than 315,000 acres.

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©2020 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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