Rachel Swan and Mallory Moench
San Francisco Chronicle
Firefighters, aided by calming weather and additional crews on the front lines, made significant progress Tuesday on three major Bay Area infernos that were sparked by lightning last week.
Some residents of Napa and Sonoma counties were allowed to return home following two days of favorable conditions that allowed firefighters to increase containment of the massive LNU Lightning Complex fires to 27%.
The LNU has burned 356,326 acres and is among a swarm of storm-triggered blazes that have charred more than 1.25 million acres statewide since Aug. 15, according to Daniel Berlant, a Cal Fire assistant deputy director.
But as the flames die down, the uncertainty will linger. Weather forecasts portend more intense heat this weekend, baking portions of the Central Valley. Thunder storms projected to hit areas north of Lake Tahoe Tuesday and Wednesday could bring more lightning and the threat of additional wildfires.
And fire season still has three months to go.
“The most overused word in 2020: ‘Unprecedented,’” Fremont Fire Chief Curtis Jacobson said during a briefing on Tuesday. “Unprecedented storms. Unprecedented fuels. Unprecedented fire loads. … To our citizens, we ask that you be diligent and prepared.”
Over the last week, officials have asked people living in rural areas to be ready to evacuate during fires, while emergency responders on the front lines work beyond the point of exhaustion.
“Every percent of containment is hours and hours of sweat and blood up on those lines,” Cal Fire Deputy Chief Jonathan Cox said.
For Alma Bowen, the third fire in four years could mean the end of calling Sonoma County her lifelong home. She evacuated from her home in Windsor voluntarily during the 2017 Tubbs Fire, trying to escape thick clouds of smoke that enveloped the sky. When the Kincade Fire exploded last year, Bowen and her family members packed their bags again.
Now with the LNU Complex looming, Bowen is preparing to leave again.
“I’m wondering how many layers of trauma we’re going to have here,” she said, standing outside a mobile COVID-19 testing site Tuesday.
Meanwhile, firefighters continued to beat back the three wildfire complexes — the LNU in the North Bay, the CZU that straddles San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, and the SCU that spreads from the East Bay to Merced. To date, six people have died in the blazes, a number that could increase in the coming days, Berlant said. Flames have destroyed 1,400 structures.
Near Boulder Creek in the Santa Cruz Mountains, six helicopters dumped 200,000 gallons of water on Monday, Cal Fire operations section chief Mark Brunton said. It was the first air support since the fire broke out a week ago.
The CZU fires, consuming 79,640 acres with 19% containment, were continuing to “actively burn above the marine layer in the heavy timber and thick undergrowth.” Evacuation orders and road closures remained in effect in dozens of locations throughout the two counties. In Santa Cruz County alone, 77,000 people have been evacuated, Cal Fire said.
Three of nine official evacuation shelters — those at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, the Seventh Day Adventist Campground and Half Moon Bay High School — were filled to capacity.
In the North Bay, Chief Sean Kavanaugh, the Cal Fire incident commander overseeing the response to the LNU, said that more than 2,194 personnel have been deployed to fight the fire, along with 304 fire engines and 12 helicopters.
Crews made the most progress at the Meyers Fire, just north of Jenner on the edge of the Pacific Coast. The fire, part of the LNU, has burned 2,360 acres and is 97% contained, Kavanaugh said.
He and other top staff expected the Hennessey Fire in Napa and Lake counties and the Walbridge Fire in Sonoma County to grow. Both of those fires are part of the LNU complex.
In Geyserville, where on Tuesday afternoon a thick coating of yellow-hued dust settled over an antique shop, a western merchandise store and Catelli’s restaurant, some of the locals seemed stoic.
“Until I see the freeway on fire, I will not evacuate, said 70-year-old Patrick Simmons, sitting outside the Geyserville Coffee Company.
But the former firefighter acknowledged that things had gotten worse recently, and the devastation this year in Dry Creek and Mill Creek roads, west of town, where some houses have been incinerated, was unprecedented.
“This is bad, the amount of acreage,” he said. “It’s been years. The foliage has dropped and it’s thick, all the limbs and dead leaves. It’s just a tinder box over there.”
Cal Fire had begun to suppress the SCU Fire, which is scattered throughout Contra Costa, Alameda, Santa Clara, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties. Falling trees and branches made the fight more difficult, particularly when the debris blocked roadways, the agency said. But with 365,772 acres burned, the SCU was at 20% containment, up from 10 % Monday.
In the coming days, moist air, breezy afternoon winds and cooler overnight temperatures could help the firefighters gain additional ground.
Widespread evacuation orders and road closures remained in effect.
For Bay Area residents not forced to leave their homes, the most telling sign of an out-of-control fire season was the air quality, which remained compromised Tuesday, with unhealthy levels reported on the Peninsula and east of Vacaville.
The air was unhealthy for sensitive groups in much of the East Bay and moderate in San Francisco, San Jose and Marin County, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Spare the Air alerts remain in effect through Friday.
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