Rong-Gong Lin II, Alex Wigglesworth, Joe Mozingo
Los Angeles Times
Two of the three largest fires in California history, burning simultaneously in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the wine country north of the San Francisco Bay, are expected to grow in the next few days as a new thunderstorm system moves over the northern half of the state, producing dry lightning and gusty winds.
The National Weather Service issued red-flag warnings across large swaths of Northern and Central California through Monday afternoon. With firefighters already responding to more than two dozen major fires, the storms could ignite even more blazes and cause existing ones to spread more rapidly, pushing crews into a triage situation.
Fortunately, firefighters were able to use a brief respite in the wind over Saturday night and through much of the day Sunday to build containment lines.
But the sheer magnitude of what has already burned is sobering: about 1.3 million acres this month alone, with four more months of potential fire season to go. Only 2018 saw more land scorched in California — over an entire year.
Now it’s clear that what Californians had feared most during this long, troubled summer has become reality: a terrible fire season in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m essentially at a loss for words to describe the scope of the lightning-sparked fire outbreak that has rapidly evolved in Northern California — even in the context of the extraordinary fires of recent years,” wrote Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, in a blog post. “It’s truly astonishing.”
On Saturday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the White House had approved California’s request for a presidential major disaster declaration to bolster the state’s emergency response to the wildfires.
Across California, “over 14,000 firefighters are on the front lines of more than two dozen major fires and lightning complexes,” or groups of fires, Jeremy Rahn, Cal Fire public information officer, said at a Sunday media briefing.
The blazes include the LNU Lightning Complex fire, which at nearly 348,000 acres is the second-largest fire in California history. The SCU Lightning Complex fire, at more than 339,000 acres, is the next largest.
Combined, they dwarf the Thomas fire, which at 281,893 acres shattered the records just three years ago.
“To have both of those going on at the same time … gives us the magnitude of what has happened here in this state,” Sean Kavanaugh, incident commander on the LNU fire, said Sunday.
The LNU fire complex in Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Solana, Yolo and Colusa counties had killed four people, destroyed 871 homes and other buildings and was 21% contained as of Sunday night. The fire was threatening the communities from the coastal redwoods around Guerneville to the dry grass ravines around Vacaville on the edge of the Central Valley, more than 50 miles east.
Residents were again told to listen for a high-low siren from sheriff’s deputies as an order to evacuate.
“With the weather predicted, the red-flag warning issued, I can’t stress enough the importance of being prepared to leave,” Cal Fire Unit Chief Shana Jones said.
The SCU Lightning Complex fire began as a collection of about 20 blazes in areas of Contra Costa, Alameda, Santa Clara, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties and by Sunday had merged into two conflagrations.
The fires, which were 10% contained as of Sunday night, were burning primarily through grass and brush in steep, remote areas that hadn’t burned in years.
“There’s a lot of dead fuel up there,” said Barbara Rebiskie, public information officer on the SCU fire. “And the erratic winds, the 7% humidities and the lightning — it’s not a good combination.”
With an estimated 20,265 homes and commercial buildings threatened and five structures destroyed, a new evacuation order was issued at 3 a.m. Sunday for parts of Alameda County. In the hours that followed, a public information center was flooded with so many phone calls that it crashed. By late Sunday morning, operators were still receiving about 1,000 calls an hour, Rebiskie said.
She urged people to keep calling back if they got a busy signal, and to visit the incident’s webpage to see a full list of evacuations.
While firefighting resources have been pouring into the region in recent days, officials say it’s simply not enough.
In some places, officials said, they were being turned down for state help and left to beg equipment and manpower from volunteers and local agencies.
“Many of these firefighters have been on the lines for 72 hours, and everybody is running on fumes,” said Assemblyman Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg), whose district includes the wine country areas under siege. “Our first responders are working to the ragged edge of everything they have.”
With the number of fires overwhelming the available crews, state officials are being forced to prioritize which incidents will get resources and focus on saving lives and structures at the expense of trying to contain the fires. That means some of the blazes could burn for weeks.
“At the statewide level, we do get into this mode where we start wondering where the biggest loss is going to be, what’s the highest priority, and that is where the resources are going to go,” said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire specialist with the UC Cooperative Extension.
What had forecasters most concerned Sunday afternoon was an area of moisture with the potential to generate thunderstorms that was just off Central California and moving toward the Monterey area, said Carolina Walbrun, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Monterey.
The front was expected to continue to move north, affecting a stretch of the state from Monterey to the Bay Area, she said.
“The fear that we have as these thunderstorms develop is that it can create strong downdrafts and result in further fire spread,” Walbrun said. “We also have the potential of generating additional fires with dry lightning from these thunderstorms. There’s very little moisture associated with it.”
The first round of thunderstorms was expected to hit hardest Sunday night into Monday, with a second event forecast Monday night into Tuesday, she said.
The system was expected to cause winds to shift to more of a southwesterly direction, moving the flame fronts with it.
“The issue that is going to hamper this whole thing is going to be the lack of resources that are available for firefighting because there are so many fires active right now, all resources are depleted,” Walbrun said. “So any additional starts are just going to stress the system even more.”
Since late July, more than 1,100 homes, commercial buildings and other structures have been destroyed by fires in California, with nearly all of that destruction occurring after Aug. 15, which marked the start of what officials are calling a “lightning siege” of about 12,000 strikes that started an estimated 585 fires in California.
In San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, the CZU Lightning Complex fire was threatening multiple communities and had forced 77,000 people from their homes. The blaze began as a collection of about 22 fires that largely merged into one, challenging firefighters as they tried to keep the flames away from the towns dotting the rural, mountainous area.
The fire had consumed 74,000 acres and was 8% contained as of Sunday night. It threatened 24,323 structures and had destroyed 175, the vast majority in Santa Cruz County. One person had been killed in the fire.
Firefighters were taking advantage of fairly calm winds to attack the fire on the ground as much as possible as they scrambled to make progress ahead of the expected storm, said Daniel Potter, a Cal Fire public information officer.
“We’re going to get as much accomplished as we can before the front hits us,” he said. “And then adapt and overcome any new fires that may start in the area due to the lightning coming through.”
Crews were working to establish containment lines and fire breaks around the city of Santa Cruz and the campus of UC Santa Cruz in a bid to keep the blaze from damaging the community if it made a run in that direction.
“It’s pretty much impossible to stop when a good wind is pushing the fire front faster than we can move,” Potter said.
Officials were asking people to stay out of evacuation zones to avoid hazards, including fire and downed trees and wires, and to keep roads open for emergency vehicles.
They also warned about criminals taking advantage of the crisis. Authorities on Saturday morning arrested five people on suspicion of grand theft, burglary and conspiracy after they were stopped driving away from the Fall Creek Drive area, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office said.
Someone also broke into the department vehicle of a firefighting commander while he was out battling the blaze, stole his wallet and drained his bank account, Mark Brunton, Cal Fire operations chief, said at a briefing Sunday.
“It’s saddening, it’s sickening,” Brunton said. “We are doing everything we can to try to help the community, and unfortunately these [things] happen.”
Meanwhile, officials also continued to beg tourists to stay away.
The Santa Cruz County Emergency Operations Center said it was requesting that visitors refrain from traveling to the area through Sept. 1 to keep overnight accommodations available for evacuees.
More than 45,000 Santa Cruz County residents have been displaced by the fires, and though the county is operating 12 shelters, capacity is limited because of COVID-19, officials said. Many hotels, motels and vacation rentals are also booked.
“DO NOT visit us now,” the county said in a tweet. “Air quality is poor, ash is everywhere, and we’re dealing with an unparalleled catastrophe. This is no time for a day at the beach.”
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