At least two people have died helping fight California wildfires that have forced thousands to flee their homes, destroyed more than 100 structures, led to the evacuation of an Air Force base and covered large swaths of the Bay Area in smoke.
“We are experiencing fires the likes of which we haven’t seen in many, many years,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a news conference Wednesday.
Across the state, about 62,000 people had evacuated and about 100,000 were under evacuation warnings as of Thursday afternoon, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.
A PG&E utility worker died Wednesday near the massive LNU Lightning Complex in Northern California who was there to clear infrastructure to make it safe for emergency responders, Cal Fire said in a statement. The worker was found unresponsive in a vehicle and pronounced dead at a hospital.
A helicopter pilot was also killed in a crash while on a water-dropping mission Wednesday morning at the Hills Fire, around 9 miles south of Coalinga in the San Joaquin Valley, Cal Fire said.
The pilot, identified Thursday by Cal Fire as Michael John Fournier, worked for a private company contracted by the agency.
The state is battling 367 fires, 23 of which are major fires or complexes, Newsom said Wednesday. Many were sparked by a massive number of lightning strikes in California — approximately 11,000 over four days — as the state is gripped by a heatwave.
The infernos are stretching the state’s resources, the governor said. “The totality, when you consider 367 active fires we’re aware of all across California … that is a resource challenge where they are stretched in ways we haven’t seen in the last few years.”
The second-largest blaze, the LNU Lightning Complex Fire, has burned 131,000 acres across five Northern California counties — Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo, and Solano — and was zero percent contained, according to Cal Fire’s latest update Thursday. It is made up of several fires connected to lightning strikes in Napa and Sonoma counties.
“We do have over 30,000 structures that are threatened,” Cal Fire spokesman Jeremy Rahn said at a press conference Thursday. He added that 105 structures have been destroyed and 70 damaged within the complex.
Rahn said that 587 firefighters are at the incident. Four people described as civilians have been injured, according to Cal Fire.
On Wednesday night, the Travis Air Force Base in Solano County, northeast of the San Francisco Bay Area, ordered all nonessential personnel to evacuate.
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Darcy Smith, 46, said she and her family operate the Funky Chicken Rescue, with about 200 animals in their care in Vacaville, a city of 100,000 about 35 miles southwest of Sacramento. She told NBC News in a phone interview Wednesday that there were several fires burning in the area that at first seemed far away.
As the blazes moved closer, the family was forced to evacuate.
“The wind picked up a bit, and we could tell that the smoke was headed our way,” she said.
Smith said they packed as many animals as they could, but had to leave over a dozen behind.
“That was completely heartbreaking. We were told to evacuate. You could actually hear people’s propane tanks exploding, so we were rushed off before we could get everybody,” she said, adding that her husband went back to their property to rescue more animals.
Caroline Newell said she decided to evacuate her home in Winters, a town 30 miles west of Sacramento, after the smell of smoke in her home became overwhelming.
“When I went outside, I went to go check out what was going on, and there was so much ash,” she told NBC News in an interview Wednesday. “It felt like it was snowing. It was super hazy but inside my house was also very hazy.”
Newell said she fled to her parents’ house in Fairfield, about 24 miles south, but later had to evacuate again to Oakland.
Bay Area residents were warned to stay indoors due to smoke from more than three dozen fires in counties just outside San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland.
A mobile park in Napa was flattened and nearly 100 people had to quickly evacuate Tuesday night as a fire ripped through the Spanish Flat Mobile Villa, according to NBC Bay Area.
One resident, a 90-year-old woman who has hearing issues, had to be rescued by a neighbor. Another neighbor, Marcia Ritz, told the outlet that everyone escaped to a resort on Lake Berryessa but that flames continued to draw closer.
“One of our friends had a pontoon, and there were 10 of us that got on it, and we were out on the water for about five hours,” Ritz said.
More than 50 trailers in the mobile park were destroyed by the blaze.
Newsom said there have been 6,754 fires since the start of the year, compared to 4,007 at this time last year.
A group of 20 fires that is being tracked as the single SCU (Santa Clara Unit) Lightning Complex Fire has burned 137,475 acres across five counties — Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Stanislaus.
Cal Fire said as of Thursday afternoon that it was only 5 percent contained. The agency said that the blaze is in steep and rugged terrain and that extreme temperatures and low humidity are contributing to it. “Some of the terrain has little to no fire history with decadent fuels conducive to extreme fire growth,” the agency said.
As of Thursday morning no structures have been destroyed, but more than 6,200 structures were threatened by that blaze.
Embers from the fire are being thrown as much as three-quarters of a mile, Cal Fire Capt. Stephen Volmer, a fire behavior analyst on the complex, said in a video Thursday. While normally humidity increases at night and slows the fire spread, that has not been happening and “and that’s allowing the fire to burn actively all day and all night out there,” he said.
“We’re looking at, just in the grass, the fire will move at up to 120 feet a minute, and that is also hampering the control efforts, because it’s putting the fire moving faster than we can actually engage it safely,” Volmer said.
Five fires in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties — dubbed the CZU August Lightning Complex — broke out Monday night and had burned 40,000 acres as of Thursday morning, according to Cal Fire. It was zero percent contained.
Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said Thursday that he was concerned that many people are pulling over on the sides of busy highways and roads to take pictures and view the fire.
“We really urge you to fight that urge and continue to evacuate,” he said. “When you pull over to take pictures, it creates secondary traffic hazards and problems for evacuations.”