Home Fire News Wildfire death toll in California mountain communities where fire rushed through rises...

Wildfire death toll in California mountain communities where fire rushed through rises to 10; 16 still missing


By Luke Money, Hayley Smith, Tony Barboza, Joseph Serna, Paige St. John and Alejandra Reyes-Velarde
Los Angeles Times

OROVILLE, Calif. — The death toll from a massive fire that swept through the mountain communities of Butte, Plumas and Yuba counties rose to 10 and 16 people remain missing, fire officials said Thursday evening.

The North Complex fire mushroomed in size this week, scorching a total of more than 252,000 acres and forced some 20,000 residents in Plumas, Butte and Yuba counties from their homes. Officials said the bodies of seven more people were found Thursday as they searched through hamlets were the fire burned.

A hand crew was overrun by flames while battling flames in the fire’s West Zone in Butte County, which had become extremely unpredictable due to erratic weather changes. The crew was able to escape, but two firefighters suffered minor injuries.

The North Complex was one of the fires that exploded in size this week as record-high temperatures and strong winds beset the state. Flames raced through the northern Sierra Nevada foothills before dawn Wednesday — catching crews and residents off guard as they leaped southwest toward towns in Butte County, including the community of Paradise, which was largely destroyed by the 2018 Camp fire.

The incident is now the 10th-largest wildfire in state history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Wildfires have burned more than 3.1 million acres statewide this year — the largest amount on record.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, spokesman Daniel Berlant said dangerously dry conditions led “to explosive fires that have really just skyrocketed us past the 3 million mark for the first time in our recorded history.”

“Unfortunately, with several more months of fire season to go, this number could continue to increase,” he said Thursday.

The Dolan fire, which ignited Aug. 18 north of Limekiln State Park in Monterey County, has also seen extreme growth this week. Officials said the combination of high temperatures, dry fuels and wind combined to more than triple the size of the fire, to more than 110,000 acres.

The fire also has spread to the Army’s Fort Hunter Liggett, though that property has not been forced to evacuate, officials said.

Near the Oregon border, the Slater fire has grown to 120,000 acres since it ignited Sept 7 in the Klamath National Forest. The fire is threatening the communities of O Brien, Takilma, Cave Junction, Gasquet, and destroyed 150 structures in the Happy Camp community.

While the mid-August lightning siege set California on the path toward a historic and horrifyingly active fire season, a second salvo of summer infernos has since pushed the toll to more devastating heights.

The unprecedented firestorm prompted the U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday to temporarily close all national forests in California.

Many officials, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, have said the effects of climate change have helped set the stage for this year’s prolific fire season.

“I quite literally have no patience for climate change deniers,” he said Tuesday.

“You may not believe it intellectually,” he added. “But your own eyes, your own experiences, tell a different story.”

So far this year, almost 7,700 fires have ignited statewide, according to Berlant.

“This year has already been a very destructive fire season, and it is nowhere close to being over,” he said Wednesday.

Six of the state’s 20 largest wildfires have started in the past month or so, according to Cal Fire. That includes the August Complex, which has burned an all-time record 471,185 acres in a remote area in and around Tehama County.

That complex — which started Aug. 17 as a cluster of 37 distinct fires in the Mendocino National Forest — was 24% contained as of Thursday. The most recent acreage figure pushed it well past the 2018 Mendocino Complex fire, which burned more than 459,000 acres.

Crews have almost completely hemmed in the SCU Lightning and LNU Lightning complexes, which rank as the third- and fourth-largest wildfires in state history, at 396,624 and 363,220 acres, respectively.

The SCU complex — which began as a collection of about 20 blazes in Contra Costa, Alameda, Santa Clara, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties — is now 97% contained. Containment is at 94% for the LNU complex, which has charred parts of Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Solano, Yolo and Colusa counties.

Joining those complexes on the distressing leaderboard is the Elkhorn fire, which is burning in the Mendocino, Shasta-Trinity and Six Rivers national forests. It has scorched 255,309 acres — the ninth-largest burn zone — and was 27% contained as of Thursday.

The massive Creek fire, which has chewed through more than 175,000 acres, destroyed an estimated 360 structures and prompted widespread evacuations in the Sierra foothills northeast of Fresno, is currently the 17th-largest in state history.

The fire was still 0% contained Thursday morning, but officials said that could soon change as weather conditions are improving.

After exploding in high heat and strong wind in its first days, the Creek fire’s run through the Sierra National Forest has slowed to a crawl. Winds cleared the air long enough Wednesday afternoon to finally give aircraft an opportunity to line the forest with retardant to slow the fire’s spread, as crews on the fire’s southern portion worked to harden the defenses around areas like Meadow Lakes and Tollhouse.

“We’re really trying to start gaining containment on this fire,” said Chris Vestal, a spokesman for the Creek fire response. “A lot of what we want to do is make sure everything that is standing stays standing.”

At nearly 24,000 acres and 0% containment, the Bobcat fire burning in the San Gabriel Mountains above Monrovia has been updated to a “Type 1” incident, Forest Service officials said Thursday morning.

The change reflects the fire’s increasing challenges and need for more personnel and equipment.

“Potential size and potential complexity” were both factors in the reclassification, according to Forest Service representative Micah Bell.

“I’ve actually seen Type 1 teams handle fires that were barely 2,000 acres, but it was the complexity of managing it that requires a bigger team,” Bell said.

Though the fire has swelled significantly — nearly doubling in size Wednesday — much of the growth was in its northeastern portion, Bell said, away from threatened foothill communities.

Six areas remain under an evacuation warning: Duarte, Bradbury, Monrovia, Sierra Madre, Pasadena and Altadena.

Near Yucaipa, the El Dorado fire has burned 12,610 acres and is 23% contained as of Thursday morning. Though there’s no current threat to the communities in Big Bear Valley, Cal Fire officials issued an advisory asking visitors to postpone visits to the area in case evacuations are ordered.

In San Diego County near the Mexican border, the Valley fire grew to 17,665 acres and is 32% contained, according to Cal Fire. Officials are also reporting 15% containment for the 1,300-acre Willow fire, which sparked north of Smartsville in Yuba County Wednesday. That fire has destroyed 30 structures, according to Cal Fire, while 700 others are considered threatened.

The hope is that weather conditions will “improve across the state today, with most areas experiencing seasonal temperatures and dry conditions,” according to Cal Fire.

“Northern California should expect average temperatures through the weekend, with a possible cooling trend next week,” officials wrote in a statewide situation update Thursday. “In Southern California, temperatures will be at or slightly above normal.”

That would be a boon to firefighters, who have had to contend with a pair of scorching heat waves in the past few weeks. UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain said that last month was “the warmest August on record in California.”

With fires raging throughout the West Coast, the skies over California have taken an apocalyptic turn — choking the air with ash and smoke in some regions, while snuffing out sunlight in others. Rarely have so many Californians breathed such unhealthy air.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District is warning that smoke and ash are likely to hit much of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties Thursday due to the two major fires locally and smoke flowing in from Northern California blazes.

The air district’s smoke advisory said that most of the Southern California region will be affected by smoke, with the highest readings of fine-particle pollution, tiny lung-damaging particles known as PM2.5, in areas closest to the Bobcat and El Dorado fires.

Smoke blowing in from Northern California “may also contribute to widespread elevated PM2.5 concentrations,” the air district said, but due to shifting winds, the smoke impacts “will be highly variable in both space and time.”

The air district said to expect “noticeable smoke and ash impacts” in southwest Los Angeles County, Orange County and southwest Riverside County.

The bad air is being generated by fires raging in California, Oregon and Washington that are lofting smoke into the air in a massive plume that is blanketing the entire West Coast and extends far out into the Pacific.

But in Southern California much of that smoke has remained aloft. At the ground level, air quality across remained in the “good” to “moderate” range Thursday morning across most of the region, except for areas in near the Bobcat Fire burning in the Angeles National Forest north of Azusa and Glendora and the El Dorado Fire is currently burning in the San Bernardino Mountains near Yucaipa, where readings showed air quality in the “unhealthy” range.

Air quality has been significantly worse in Northern California, where raging fires this week have choked the air with smoke and ash and snuffed out the sunlight, casting a gloomy, orange pall over San Francisco and other areas. Air monitoring data on Thursday morning showed unhealthy pollution levels in most of San Francisco and in other parts of the San Francisco Bay Area.


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