Raging set of wildfires in Northern California doubles in size.
Wildfires tore through Northern California on Wednesday, spreading rapidly and engulfing dozens of homes as firefighters battled to stop the blazes, which have forced thousands of evacuations and were caused by an extraordinary number of lightning strikes in recent days.
A group of fires west of Sacramento, known as the L.N.U. Lightning Complex, doubled in size throughout the day, growing to 124,000 acres and threatening about 25,000 structures after forcing evacuations in Vacaville, Cal Fire officials said.
Four civilians have been injured and 175 structures have been destroyed or damaged by those fires, which are 0 percent contained as strong winds enter the area. Much of Napa, Sonoma and Solano Counties was blanketed in smoke during the day.
About 11,000 lightning strikes — a “historic lightning siege” — caused more than 367 new fires in recent days, Chief Jeremy Rahn, a Cal Fire spokesman, said at a news conference.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said that 23 fires were considered major blazes. At least one person has died, a helicopter pilot who crashed while attempting to drop water in Fresno County.
Videos from Vacaville, a city of about 100,000 residents, showed flames leaping through one neighborhood, from trees to homes to picket fences.
Philip Galbraith, 52, said he and his 20-year-old son received no warning of the approaching fire until a neighbor began “desperately banging” on his door around 2:45 a.m.
“I got out of the house in pretty much what I had on,” he said. “I got my son and we left.”
The authorities have also ordered residents to evacuate in several other areas where groups of fires, also likely caused by lightning, are spreading quickly. The S.C.U. Lightning Complex, a group of about 20 fires, more than doubled in size overnight, and is burning over 85,000 acres across five counties — largely in unpopulated regions near the Bay Area — and is just 5 percent contained.
A third combination of fires, known as the C.Z.U. August Lightning Complex, has grown to 25,000 acres, destroyed at least 20 structures and forced evacuations in Santa Cruz County. The burning area, which is northeast of Santa Cruz and 0 percent contained, was largely inaccessible for fire crews because of the terrain, Cal Fire officials said.
Stretched thin, fire officials have requested 375 fire engines from fire agencies in other states and have pleaded with residents to be ready to flee their homes when instructed.
Travis Air Force Base issues mandatory evacuation for some personnel.
Travis Air Force Base in Solano County mandated the evacuation of all “non-mission essential personnel” as the L.N.U. Lightning Complex fires approached on Wednesday night, temporarily closing Interstate 80 north of the base.
More than 14,000 people are employed at the base about 10 miles southeast of Vacaville, where residents awoke early Wednesday morning to fire trucks blaring evacuation orders. About 7,400 active-duty personnel are stationed at the base, along with about 3,250 Air Force reserve members, according to its website.
Woken at 2 a.m., a Vacaville resident fled with his dog and not much else.
Clayton Jack, 31, a professional wrestler who lives in Vacaville, said he was woken up by a house guest around 2 a.m. on Wednesday and immediately smelled smoke in the air.
“I go outside and see the big, red, orange glow on the hill and then I see tons of light,” Mr. Jack said. “And then I see a bunch of cop cars that were driving up and down the street.”
Mr. Jack, who wrestles under the name Kal Jak, said an officer told him it was time to leave.
“I was able to grab my dog, my own stuff, my laptop, my camera and then just from there I drove off,” he said.
In the car, Mr. Jack realized that he smelled “head to toe like fire,” he said. He drove past fire trucks equipped with spotlights and megaphones that were carrying urgent messages to evacuate.
“It was something out of a movie,” said Mr. Jack, who was able to leave Vacaville by 3 a.m. and drove northeast to Lake Tahoe, where his family owns a cabin.
“I’m very fortunate to have a place to stay at the moment,” he said. “Hopefully the house doesn’t burn down.”
Steep topography is complicating efforts to combat fires in Santa Cruz County.
DAVENPORT, Calif. — Cal Fire trucks waited at the edge of Waddell Beach on Wednesday afternoon, just across from a steep ridge with smoldering vegetation. Thick brown and gray smoke billowed over the hills in nearby Big Basin Redwoods State Park and extended over the Pacific Ocean as helicopters dumped water on the flames from above.
Portions of Highway 1 along the coast were closed off to the public on Wednesday afternoon as trees burned on nearby hillsides and, in one case, flames licked the edges of the road.
Sarah Collamer, a Cal Fire forester, said the fires in Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties, called the C.Z.U. Lightning Complex, had yet to be contained, and had damaged at least dozens of buildings after more than 100 lightning strikes sparked the blazes. The fires began late Monday night. Low humidity and warm temperatures on Tuesday evening allowed the fires to actively burn overnight. By Wednesday afternoon, the fires had spread across 10,000 acres.
“It’s challenging, there’s not any good place to stop it because it’s steep country,” Ms. Collamer said, noting that the dense vegetation and strong ocean gusts were not helping.
The goal now is to “save homes and lives and people’s property,” she said, rather than contain the fires outright. Fire crews were out on the ground, and Cal Fire was also using bulldozers and engines, she said. The crews were fighting on Wednesday afternoon to keep the nearby Big Creek Lumber mill from going up in flames.
Fighting this complex of fires during the pandemic has not been a huge challenge, Ms. Collamer said, but firefighters are wearing masks at all times and avoiding close contact with the public.
Poor air quality is also a problem for many in Northern California.
The wildfires burning in Northern California are spreading smoke across a wide region, with the National Weather Service’s Bay Area office warning on Twitter that air quality in the area will be “very poor for the foreseeable future.”
In many parts of the Bay Area, the air quality index was higher than 200, a level at which “everyone may experience more serious health effects if they are exposed for 24 hours,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
That reading was high compared to other cities that often have poor air quality, like Delhi, which had an air quality index of 154 on Wednesday, and Beijing, where that number has hovered around 150 this week. The air quality index scale goes up to 500, with anything above 100 considered unhealthy.
And the combination of Covid-19 and smoke can be a dangerous one, as both damage and tax the respiratory system, making those already exposed to the virus more vulnerable.
Polluted air can also weaken the respiratory and immune systems of those who don’t have the virus, making them more susceptible to respiratory infections like Covid-19, according to the Washington State Department of Health, which has issued detailed guidance on the combined risks of smoke and the virus.
Studies have also shown that in areas with poor air quality, people are more likely to die if they contract the virus. And coughing, difficulty breathing and headaches are symptoms that both Covid-19 and wildfire smoke exposure can cause, making it more difficult to know which may be the source.
Solano County, which includes Vacaville and has about 413,000 residents, has been averaging about 76 new coronavirus cases a day over the last two weeks, according to a New York Times database.
Though it may seem fortuitous that so many people are equipped with face masks as the air quality worsens, health officials say cloth and surgical masks will not help protect against dangerous particles in the air caused by fires. Only N95 masks with two straps will properly protect the lungs, the Washington State Department of Health said.
There have been thousands more fires than at this time last year.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Wednesday that there have been 6,754 fires across California this year, many more than the roughly 4,000 that the state had seen at this time last year.
The fires ignited by lightning this week come as the state is battling the effects of a sweltering heat wave, rolling blackouts and the coronavirus pandemic. Mr. Newsom has declared an emergency, which will make more aid available to fight the hundreds of wildfires that have been aggravated by heat and sustained high winds, the governor’s office said.
Even as residents fled their homes and fires raged, Mr. Newsom emphasized that California was painfully familiar with the challenges of a busy wildfire season, and that officials have been bracing for months.
“This is what the state does,” he said.
The governors of Arizona and Texas have both sent resources to California, Mr. Newsom said.
“We’re putting everything we have on these fires,” he said. “We’re now getting support from across the western U.S. and for that we’re grateful.”
The fires throughout the state have stressed the state’s mutual aid system, which has made it difficult for jurisdictions to obtain the firefighting resources they need, according to the governor’s emergency proclamation. The governor has also mobilized the California National Guard to assist with relief efforts.
In addition to the fires tearing through Northern California, the Lake Fire has been burning in the Angeles National Forest north of Los Angeles for eight days, and has grown to nearly 26,000 acres. The fire, which is 38 percent contained, has forced people to evacuate, destroyed a dozen buildings and is threatening thousands more.
Further to the east, the Dome Fire is burning in one of the largest Joshua tree forests in the United States, in the Mojave National Preserve near the Nevada border. The fire has covered more than 43,000 acres in three days and is 5 percent contained.
Mr. Newsom had better news about the virus. Hospitalizations and the positivity rate in the state are both trending downward, he said.
California has faced rolling blackouts as a heat wave raises demand for electricity.
The heat has also taken its toll on the state’s electrical supply, with operators of the state’s power grid twice ordering rolling outages last week and pleading with customers to use less power this week.
On Tuesday, as many as 2 million homes and businesses were warned they could be subject to rotating blackouts of an hour or more, but the California Independent System Operator said a reduction in demand meant that the outages were not needed.
Lawmakers and consumer groups have expressed outrage that the operator had not adequately prepared for the heat wave.
The blackouts, which started on Friday, were reminiscent of an energy crisis 20 years ago, when the state’s botched deregulation of the electricity system left millions of people in the dark and drove the wholesale price of power skyward.
Gov. Gavin Newsom demanded an investigation into why state regulators had failed to prepare for high temperatures, which had been forecast for days.
The state has also used blackouts to avoid sparking wildfires. Last year, Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility, shut the power off to millions of customers, some for days, to reduce the risk that its equipment would set off wildfires.
Officials have been bracing for the challenge of fighting fires during a pandemic.
As a punishing wildfire season has exploded this week across California, it has also tested plans devised months ago by state emergency authorities, who were predicting as far back as May that the coronavirus, climate change and the need to turn off the power in dangerous fire conditions would turn their job into “MacGyver on steroids” this year.
In an interview earlier this spring, Mark Ghilarducci, the director of the state’s office of emergency services, said the pandemic was already bringing “an almost oppressive level of complexity” to fire planning, from evacuation plans to reductions in manpower as members of inmate fire crews have been released from prisons to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“Things already are hotter and drier earlier in the season,” Mr. Ghilarducci said. “Looming in the background are the public safety power shutoffs that were infamous last year. And if that’s not bad enough, now we have to deal with a worldwide pandemic. In a fire season. With the power off. What else do you want from us?”
Mr. Ghilarducci’s remarks came as he was helping plan fire precautions that would be announced in July by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Among them: Protocols to beef up fire crews and to prevent the virus from spreading in evacuation centers.
The new evacuation rules include health screenings upon entry to a shelter, extra cleaning, prepackaged meals, separating evacuees with Covid-19 symptoms, and the repurposing of college dorms, Airbnb houses, campgrounds and hotels into evacuation shelters.
“We have to think differently,” he said. “We know sticking everybody into a big room at a fairground isn’t going to work this year.”
But, he added, “there’s no silver bullet.”
“We’re going to do our damnedest to keep people safe,” Mr. Ghilarducci said in May. “But this is like MacGyver on steroids. And failure is not an option. We have to find a pathway.”
Reporting was contributed by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Kellen Browning, Thomas Fuller, Shawn Hubler, Christina Morales, Azi Paybarah, Ivan Penn, Derrick Bryson Taylor, Lucy Tompkins, Will Wright and Alan Yuhas.
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