Wildfires continue to sear through California, forcing thousands out of their homes and taxing the state’s firefighting capacity amid a heatwave and the coronavirus pandemic. One grouping of fires – the LNU Lightning Complex north of the Bay Area – grew rapidly overnight, doubling in size to about 131,000 acres by Thursday, and burning through more than 100 homes and buildings.
The fires have so far destroyed 175 structures, including homes, and are threatening 50,000 more, said Daniel Berlant, an assistant deputy director with the state department of forestry and fire protection. In all, 33 civilians and firefighters have been injured.
At least two people have died fighting the fires – a pilot on a water-dropping mission whose helicopter crashed and a utility worker who was assisting at a fire in the Vacaville area.
As the flames edged toward the Silicon Valley city of San Jose, they blackened the skies and spewed up what was perhaps some of the worst air quality in the world. Ash blanketed many Bay Area neighborhoods, and health officials asked residents to stay indoors, warning that the combination of smoky air and Covid-19 make those with respiratory conditions doubly vulnerable.
Big Basin Redwoods state park, California’s oldest state park and home of some of its majestic redwoods, sustained “extensive damage”, according to the state parks and recreation department, with several historic buildings destroyed.
About two dozen major blazes and several smaller fires have eaten through brushland and dense forests, wildlands in the Sierra Nevada, southern California, and regions north, east and south of San Francisco.
Evacuated residents now number in the tens of thousands, with Santa Cruz county requesting that all tourists leave their hotels immediately to make space for evacuees.
“Local shelters are near capacity,” local officials said in a statement. “The scale of existing and anticipated evacuation orders is unprecedented and the need to safely house evacuees is critical.”
The coronavirus pandemic has also complicated the government’s ability to safely evacuate and shelter residents. The Red Cross has tried to secure hotel rooms for evacuees who are unable to stay with family or friends. “Providing shelter at traditional evacuation centers is not our first option this year,” said Jim Burns, a spokesman for the American Red Cross. California has been struggling to get a handle on a recent surge in coronavirus cases, and crowded shelters could exacerbate the spread of Covid-19 among evacuees.
Local counties and the Red Cross have set up some shelters across the state, and as precautions “have spaced out cots differently, and have volunteers completely masked up”, to slow the spread of disease, Burns said. “It’s just so tough this year.”
Through local Facebook community pages, and in group text chains, neighbors have been offering each other help moving farm animals, storage space for personal possessions and shelter in guest bedrooms and on couches. “I’ve had people I barely, know – friends of friends – reach out and say, ‘You can come and stay with us,’” said Valerie Arbelaez Brown, who evacuated her home in Vacaville with her husband and three children on Wednesday. “It makes us feel really thankful,” she said after her family eventually landed with family north of the fires.
In some areas, evacuees with underlying health conditions that elevate their risk of dying from Covid-19, have camped outside evacuation centers, stayed in RVs or in their cars.
The LNU fires raging through Napa and Sonoma – California’s famous wine-producing regions – now threaten 25,000 buildings, according to Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency. At one vineyard in the area, fire ate through irrigated vines, noted Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA. “I don’t think I’ve seen that before,” he told the Guardian. Normally, the irrigation lines would break the flames – that they didn’t speaks to how dry the landscape is, Swain said.
Another group of fires, called the CZU August Lightning Complex, chewed through mountainous areas surrounding Silicon Valley, forcing 22,000 to flee their homes. The conditions were “unprecedented and unseen by veteran firefighters”, Cal Fire officials said.
Donald Trump addressed the wildfires at a press conference Thursday, once again blaming California’s forest management for the wildfires and renewing threats to withhold aid because California “didn’t listen” to him.
In 2019, a total of about 259,800 acres across the state had burned by the end of the year. Since this Saturday, nearly 400,000 acres burned just in northern California. “Last year was a relatively mild fire year, but nonetheless,” Swain said, “I think that helps put the severity of the current situation in perspective.”
Firefighters said both personnel and equipment were stretched thin, and California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, this week declared a state of emergency, and appealed to the whole country to send help. In Marin county, north of San Francisco, fire chief Jason Weber told the AP he was awaiting assistance from Montana. “We’ve never seen this level of draw-down” in his 25 years of service, he said.
More than 10,000 firefighters are on the frontlines, but fire officials in charge of each of the major fire complexes say they are strapped for resources. Some firefighters were working 72-hour shifts instead of the usual 24 hours.
No sign of abatement is in sight, said Crystal Kolden, a fire scientist at the University of California, Merced. The next two weeks are expected to remain hot and dry. “The fires will be tough to contain until the heatwave breaks,” she said.
Due to global heating, fires in California are “becoming more frequent and more extreme”, Kolden said. “And that’s what’s sort of the eye opener here. We probably couldn’t have predicted, a year ago, that a pandemic and a lightning storm, and a heat wave would come this August,” she said. “But we can predict that overall, we need to get more aggressive mitigating for fire long term.”