Steve August 21, 2020
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California wildfires blackened skies, killed at least five people and forced tens of thousands of people from their homes, as the number of fires burning in the state continued to grow Friday.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said nearly 12,000 lightning strikes hit the state over a 72-hour period and close to 560 fires were burning across California.

“Just a day ago, I announced that we are struggling to address the needs of suppressing some 376 fires in this state,” he said at a news conference. “That number has grown to about 560 fires in the state of California. We had a lot of sleeper fires. This we anticipated as the smoke cleared.”

The fires have consumed more than 771,000 acres, said Assistant Deputy Director Daniel Berlant of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.

“That is roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island,” he said in a video update.

Firefighting crews were struggling Friday to get the fires under control as conditions improved only slightly from the previous day. Ninety-six percent of Cal Fire’s engines were committed to firefighting Friday, Cal Fire Incident Commander Nick Truax said at a news conference.

Some National Guard troops from the Monterey area have been deployed to help, he said, but a few hundred more were expected in the coming week or two. Newsom said earlier in the day the guard had 10 helicopters dedicated to the firefighting effort.

Truax said some were water-dropping aircraft while others were using infrared devices to help track the fires.

The largest group of blazes, the SCU Lightning Complex Fire, charred nearly 230,000 acres across five Northern California counties, including Santa Clara, Alameda and Contra Costa, as of Friday morning, more than double the 102,000 acres it had burned through 24 hours before, according to Cal Fire. It was 10 percent contained.

The LNU Lightning Complex Fire, charred 219,000 acres across another five counties as of Friday morning, including Napa, Sonoma and other counties in wine country, according to Cal Fire. It was 7 percent contained.

The fire has also claimed at least four lives and destroyed at least 480 structures.

Berlant said the SCU fire centered in Santa Clara County and the LNU in Sonoma, Solano, Lake and Napa counties, were the seventh and 10th largest, respectively, in state history.

More than 115,000 Californians have been evacuated, Truax said.

Two state prison facilities are near the LNU fire, but the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said evacuation orders did not impact them yet.

“We are actively monitoring the Lightning Fire in Vacaville, but are not being directed to evacuate and the institutions are not in immediate danger,” spokesperson Aaron Francis said by email.

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A C-130 aircraft drops flame retardant on Aug. 20, 2020 in Healdsburg, Calif.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Three of the deaths were in Napa County, and the fourth in Solano County, according to officials. The three people who died in Napa County were found Wednesday in a residence, with their remains recovered Thursday, Napa County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Henry Wofford said.

A Pacific Gas & Utility utility worker also died Wednesday while clearing infrastructure around the fire complex to make it safe for first responders, Cal Fire said in a statement Thursday.

Cal Fire spokeswoman Heather Williams said Friday that it would be up to local authorities to connect the death to the LNU fire.

A fifth fatality, of a helicopter pilot whose aircraft crashed Wednesday morning while he was conducting water drops, was in a different blaze, the Hills Fire in Fresno County, officials said.

Newsom said at the news conference that the infernos were “stretching our resources, stressing our personnel.” He said that the state would be receiving a grant from FEMA “to help ensure the availability of vital resources” needed to fight the wildfires.

The governor said earlier this week that many of the fires were sparked by a large number of lightning strikes in California as the state grappled with a heat wave.

On Friday afternoon, the National Weather Service in San Francisco issued a fire-weather watch from Sunday morning to Tuesday morning.

“Lightning will likely spark new fires across the region, including remote areas,” the agency said. “Wildfires in remote regions may not become apparent until warmer and drier conditions allow them to grow.”

The prospect of more dry lightning in Northern California has crews “remaining on high alert,” Berlant of Cal Fire said.

Newsom linked the wildfires to climate change during a last-minute video recorded for the Democratic National Convention on Thursday night from a forest near Watsonville, after he visited an evacuation center.

“If you are in denial about climate change, come to California,” he said.

“I confess this is not where I expected to be speaking here tonight,” the governor said into what appeared to be a cellphone camera. Newsom had recorded an earlier, more lighthearted video, to be delivered in the convention’s prime-time hours but decided it didn’t bring the right tone amid his state’s disasters, said Dan Newman, one of his political advisers.

About two dozen major fires or complexes have been burning across California. Nearly 12,000 firefighters are battling the blazes, according to a statewide fire summary. So far, 508 structures have been destroyed.

Tim Edwards, president of the CalFire firefighters union, said 2020 was beginning to resemble 2017, when the state saw some of its most destructive fires, with more than 10,000 structures damaged or destroyed.

“We are in the same situation but with 10 times as many fires,” he said.

The state has over 10,000 firefighters on the front lines, but 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.

Newsom said he requested 375 fire engines from other states. So far, governors in Arizona, Nevada and Texas have agreed to send crews and support, the governor said.

With a majority of fire activity in Northern California, that region was dealing with an air quality crisis, as ash fell to the ground from above.

Public health officials urged people to stay inside with windows and doors shut until the smoke subsided. The region’s air district extended a “Spare the Air” alert through Sunday, which makes it illegal to burn wood.

A home is burned to the ground by the Lightning Complex Fire, on Aug. 20, 2020, in Ben Lomond, Calif.Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

The Oakland As went ahead with Friday night’s game against the Los Angeles Angels despite air quality described by the U.S. Air Quality Index as “unhealthy.” The team said it would continue to monitor air quality ahead of the next two games against the Angels.

Smoke from the fires blew across Western states, reaching Salt Lake City and eastern Idaho, where air was also “unhealthy,” according to the National Weather Service.

With a statewide call to conserve energy to avoid more power outages, Californians sweltering in a prolonged heat wave and surrounded by smoke must choose between cranking their fans and air conditioners or shutting them down to conserve energy.

“These disasters need solutions that are in direct conflict with each other,” said Jennifer K. Balch, a fire scientist at the University of Colorado. “COVID-19 is forcing us outside to reduce transmission risk while extreme wildfire smoke is forcing us back inside where the air is better. We’re running out of options to cope under the weight of compound disasters.”

While the fire risk is not as high as earlier in the week, firefighters aren’t looking at favorable conditions Friday. The weekend would still bring low humidity, temperatures in the mid-to-upper 90s and the risk of more lightning that could spark new fires, meteorologists said.

In one week, the already-existing fires have burned nearly 600,000 acres across California. The state usually averages about 700,000 acres burned in an entire year.

Since Jan. 1, 2020, Cal Fire has responded to over 5,600 wildfires, according to the statewide fire summary.

“The recent spike in wildfire activity is an important reminder for residents to take steps to prevent sparking a wildfire. Having an evacuation plan, a supply kit, and important paperwork will make it easier when it is time to GO,” the report said.

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