Hundreds of thousands of acres continue to burn across California in some of the largest wildfires in state history, as the northern part of the state braces for high winds with lightning that threaten to spark new blazes.
For more than 10 days, firefighters have been battling two dozen major wildfires that have torched more than 1.1 million acres of land, according to Cal Fire. On all sides of the San Francisco Bay Area, the three largest blazes — caused by clusters of fire complexes — are burrowing through forest and rural areas mostly uncontained, officials said.
A slight uptick in humidity aided in efforts to battle the fires over the weekend, fire commanders told the AP. Minimal lightning on Sunday night also lowered the risk of new fires.
But most of Northern California remains under a “red flag warning” through Tuesday morning. The National Weather Service is calling for high temperatures, low humidity and “gusty erratic” wind gusts of up to 40 to 50 mph that could blow around existing fires.
Residual moisture from tropical storms in the Gulf is expected to collide with scorching temperatures in California, creating the potential for dry lightning strikes that could spark new blazes, Cal Fire Assistant Deputy Director Daniel Berlant said in an update posted on Facebook.
Over the past week, more than 13,000 dry lightning strikes sparked more than 600 fires that were elevated by dry conditions in a parched California terrain. These fires have put more than 250,000 people under evacuation orders and warnings.
“You could overlay half of one of these fires and it covers the entire city of San Francisco,” Cal Fire spokesman Brice Bennett told the AP.
At least seven people have died as of this weekend when authorities discovered the body of a 70-year-old man in the remote Santa Cruz mountains area known as Last Chance.
That fire, known as the CZU August Lightning Complex, is scorching some 78,000 acres across San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties and has destroyed at least 231 structures. As of Monday morning, Cal Fire officials said the blaze is only 13% contained.
The largest of the three fire complexes, the LNU Lightning Complex, is covering more than 350,000 acres near the Napa Valley, making it the second-largest fire in state history. It has killed at least four people and destroyed 871 structures.
With only 22% of the blaze contained, Cal Fire officials are expecting the LNU Lightning Complex to spread as “fires continue to make runs in multiple directions, impacting multiple communities,” according to a statement Monday morning.
In Santa Clara and Alameda counties, another series of fires that make up the SCU Lightning Complex has grown to more than 347,000 acres, Cal Fire reports. That fire is only 10% contained.
Firefighting crews from across the western U.S., military aircraft and over 200 National Guard troops have joined the fight since the weekend. There are some 14,000 firefighters, 2,400 fire engines and 95 aircraft working in tandem to fight the fires.
In Southern California, firefighters battling rough terrain, hot weather and potential thunderstorms kept an 11-day-old blaze steady at just under 50 square miles near Lake Hughes in the Los Angeles County mountains, the AP reported.
As the fires force more residents to flee, some evacuated homes have been burglarized. At least 13 people have been arrested on suspicion of looting or planning to loot in Santa Cruz County, officials said.
The COVID-19 pandemic is also complicating evacuation orders as officials scramble to find space for residents who were forced from their homes. As NPR’s Lauren Sommer reports for our Newscast unit, many evacuees are being sent to hotels to allow for social distancing in shelters.
Others are struggling to find shelter after being financially devastated by the pandemic. Earlier this week, Tina Marie Carini, her husband and two sons had to flee from their trailer in North Santa Cruz County.
Both she and her husband are out of work and concerned about recovering financially now that the wildfires have struck their neighborhood, Carini told KQED’s Hannah Hagemann. The family has had to move locations three times in the past week.
“We’re just hoping we don’t lose everything, and we’re tired of running,” Carini says. “We’re just so tired.”