CNN

California wildfires: 4 killed, thousands of buildings torched, and conditions are worsening, firefighters say

Aug 21, 2020, 12:47 PM
Flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fires jump Interstate 80 in Vacaville, Calif., Wednesday, Aug...
Flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fires jump Interstate 80 in Vacaville, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. The highway was closed in both directions shortly afterward. Fire crews across the region scrambled to contain dozens of wildfires sparked by lightning strikes as a statewide heat wave continues. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
(AP Photo/Noah Berger)

(CNN) — Massive wildfires tormenting California have killed at least four people, turned neighborhoods into ash and blanketed swaths of the state with dense smoke — and firefighters say manpower shortages and weather will make them worse Friday.

Nearly two dozen active blazes have torched at least 771,000 acres, with the largest three alone consuming nearly 500,000 acres in and around the Bay Area and northern Central Valley, fire officials say.

That includes two of the state’s 10 largest wildfires in recorded history — the 229,900-acre SCU Lightning Complex largely east of San Jose, and the 219,000-acre LNU Lightning Complex in the northern Bay Area.

Though thousands of firefighters are battling the flames — some on 24-hour shifts — there’s too many fires and not enough resources to prevent more homes from being torched, fire officials say.

“The fire conditions, the lack of resources, we’re doing the best we absolutely can,” Cal Fire section chief Mark Brunton said Friday morning about blazes north of Santa Cruz.

The fires, largely sparked by lightning in the past few days, have been exacerbated by dry terrain during a torrid heatwave. And as tens of thousands of people heed evacuation orders, they’re weighing the risk of coronavirus infections as they decide whether to head to official shelters.

The LNU fire alone has destroyed about 4,800 structures, including many homes, in the northern Bay Area and Central Valley, Cal Fire has said.

Just west of Healdsburg, a city of about 11,000 people in Sonoma County, the approaching fire had people rushing to leave with whatever they could carry Thursday night, CNN affiliate KPIX reported.

Jason Passalacqua told the station that he worked all day and night to trim trees and put sprinklers on his home’s roof ahead of the fire.

“It’s scary at the end of the day and it’s out of anybody’s control,” he told KPIX.

Warm and dry conditions are expected to help drive worsening fire spread in Northern California Friday afternoon, Cal Fire said.

Vacaville, a city of 100,000 people between Sacramento and San Francisco, is one of the hardest-hit. Fire has burned homes in and outside the city, though most evacuation orders there have been lifted.

Fires have scorched more acres than last year

California wildfires have caused more deaths and destruction so far this year than in all of 2019. All of last year, they charred a total of 260,000 acres and killed three people in the state, according to Cal Fire.

Roughly 15 miles north of Vacaville, fire killed dozens of animals that Christa Petrillo Haefner kept on her parents’ property — and nearly took her husband, she told CNN affiliate KCRA.

“I lost seven goats, a lamb, about 75 chickens, 20 turkeys, five ducks and a mare — and a foal did not make it” because fire swept onto the property in Yolo County just outside Winters early Thursday, Petrillo Haefner told the station.

The family fled unharmed in the middle of the night, but not before a close call.

“(My husband) was up on the tractor doing a fire break, and … a big gust of wind came up, and the fire went literally up and over him,” Petrillo Haefner told KCRA.

Several global air quality monitoring websites show that the air quality levels in California’s Bay Area and Central Valley are worse than anywhere else, including locations generally regarded as having the poorest air quality such as India and eastern China.

Deaths reported in various counties

At least four deaths were reported Thursday as a result of the LNU fire — the largest burning in the state. It consists of at least 11 smaller fires stretching across five counties in Northern California.

Three of the deaths are from Napa County and one is from Solano County. In addition to the deaths, four other people were injured, Cal Fire said Thursday.

On Wednesday, a helicopter pilot who was making water drops on the Hills Fire in Fresno County died in a crash. It’s unclear whether the pilot’s death was included in the four fatalities. CNN has reached out to officials.

Evacuation stragglers are taking away from the firefight, official says

About 64,600 people in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties have been told to evacuate because of the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire south and west of San Jose, according to Cal Fire Deputy Chief Jonathan Cox. That fire has burned 50,000 acres, he said Friday.

“It could be potentially weeks” before evacuees in the Scotts Valley area just north of Santa Cruz city are allowed back on their properties, “depending on what this fire does,” chief sheriff’s deputy Chris Clark told reporters Friday.

The Scotts Valley flames were not far from the University of California, Santa Cruz, where students were ordered to evacuate Thursday with expectations to “be prepared to not return for at least two weeks,” the school said on Twitter.

Somewhere in those two counties, firefighters made three nighttime rescues of people who did not heed evacuation orders, Brunton, the Cal Fire operations section chief, said Friday morning. In some cases, he said, the people may have been trying to keep the fire from their property.

The rescues “pulled our vital, very few resources away, to have to rescue those individuals because they put themselves in peril,” Brunton said.

“If you have been (ordered to evacuate), please evacuate. Do not put yourself … (or) our first responders into that situation,” he said.

Fire officials have said they don’t have an exact number on how many people have been told to leave their homes statewide.

Governor slams power blackouts

As if the pandemic, wildfires, and scorching heatwave weren’t bad enough, some Californians have lost electricity as the state’s power grid struggles to keep up with demand.

Rolling blackouts were implemented over the weekend when an intense heatwave caused record-setting temperatures across the state, including a high of 130 degrees in Death Valley on Sunday.

Gov. Gavin Newsom demanded an investigation into the power outages, which he said are unacceptable.

“These blackouts, which occurred without warning or enough time for preparation, are unacceptable and unbefitting of the nation’s largest and most innovative state,” Newsom wrote in a letter to the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Energy Commission.

Dozens of fires are burning nationwide

Over 11 million people are under an excessive heat warning in the Southwest, CNN meteorologist Robert Shackelford said. Triple-digit temperatures are possible in all these areas with temperatures still above average, he added.

While the West is suffering record-breaking heat, wildfires are ravaging many parts of the US.

At least 92 large wildfires are burning in 14 states nationwide this week — many of them in California, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

The fires have burned a total of 1.2 million acres. In addition to California, some states with multiple fires include Arizona with 11, Alaska with seven, and Colorado with five.

How climate change fuels wildfires

Experts have warned that wildfires fueled by the climate crisis will be the new normal in California. Warm-season days in the state have increased by 2.5 degrees since the early 1970s, according to a study published last year in the journal Earth’s Future.

“The clearest link between California wildfire and anthropogenic climate change thus far has been via warming-driven increases in atmospheric aridity, which works to dry fuels and promote summer forest fire,” the report said.

“It is well established that warming promotes wildfire throughout the western US, particularly in forested regions, by enhancing atmospheric moisture demand and reducing summer soil moisture as snowpack declines.”

Park Williams, the study’s lead author and a professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, said human-caused warming of the planet has caused the vapor pressure deficit to increase by 10% since the late 1800s, meaning that more evaporation is occurring.

By 2060, he expects that effect to double.

“This is important because we have already seen a large change in California wildfire activity from the first 10%. Increasing the evaporation has exponential effects on wildfires, so the next 10% increase is likely to have even more potent effects,” he told CNN last year.

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California wildfires: 4 killed, thousands of buildings torched, and conditions are worsening, firefighters say