California firefighters brace for high winds that could fan already enormous wildfires

A calm overnight allowed firefighters to make progress against a trio of massive wildfires burning in northern California, but they were girding for a weather system Sunday that will bring high winds and thunderstorms that could spark new fires and fan existing blazes.

The wildfires have already destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and other structures and forced tens of thousands to flee.

The “complexes,” or groups of fires, burning on all sides of the San Francisco Bay Area were started by lightning strikes that were among 12,000 registered in the state in the past week.

The National Weather Service issued a “red flag” warning through Monday afternoon for the drought-stricken area, meaning extreme fire conditions — including high temperatures, low humidity and wind gusts up to 105 km/h that “may result in dangerous and unpredictable fire behaviour.”

At a morning briefing on the so-called CZU Lightning Complex fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco, fire officials said they had increased containment to eight per cent and, with the better weather on Saturday, dug more protective fire lines around vulnerable communities, including the University of California, Santa Cruz.

More lightning coming

But there is concern about the weather and the thunderstorms that will bring high winds and “dry” lightning, a term used when such storms have little or no rain. Radar images from late morning showed lightning offshore and approaching the coast.

Chief Mark Brunton, a battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), said the winds can blow a fire in any direction. While he’s confident firefighters did the most with the time they had to prepare, he said he’s not sure what to expect.

“There’s a lot of potential for things to really go crazy out there,” he said.

A burned-out vehicle is left in front of a fire-ravaged residence as smoke from the fire fills the sky on Saturday. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/The Associated Press)

Another challenge for firefighters and police are people who refuse to leave the evacuation zone out of stubbornness or because they want to protect their homes. Then there are others who use the chaos to commit crimes.

Brunton said he was “sickened” to learn that a fire commander was robbed while helping co-ordinate efforts on Saturday. Someone entered the commander’s fire vehicle and stole personal items, including a wallet, and “drained his bank account.”

‘Please, please, please leave the evacuation area’

Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Chris Clark said when people don’t heed evacuation orders, it makes it harder for firefighters to do their job and for police to protect property. It’s also inherently dangerous for civilians, with fires burning unpredictably and tree branches falling — one hit a patrol car and damaged the windshield.

“Please, please, please leave the evacuation area,” he said.

Since Aug. 15, state fire officials said, more than 500 fires of varying sizes have burned throughout California, scorching a million acres, or roughly 4,050 square kilometres. Of those, about two dozen major fires were utilizing much of the state’s resources.

Most of the damage was caused by the three complexes that were ravaging forest and rural areas in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. They have burned about 3,040 square kilometres, destroyed almost 1,000 homes and other structures and killed five people, three of whom were found in a home in an area under an evacuation order.

Slaughter walks along Highway 9 while monitoring flames from the blaze. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/The Associated Press)

Other casualties included ancient redwood trees at California’s oldest state park, Big Basin Redwoods, plus the park’s headquarters and campgrounds. Smoke from the fires made the region’s air quality dangerous, forcing millions to stay inside.

“Tuesday night when I went to bed, I had a beautiful home on a beautiful ranch,” said 81-year-old Hank Hanson of Vacaville, in Solano County. “By Wednesday night, I have nothing but a bunch of ashes.”

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The fire that burned Hanson’s home is the LNU Lightning Complex fire in wine country north of San Francisco. It’s been the most destructive, accounting for all the deaths and 845 destroyed homes and other buildings. It and a fire burning southeast of the Bay Area are among the five largest fires in state history, with both burning more than 1,295 square kilometres.

Officials surveying maps at command centres are astonished by the sheer size of the fires, which are larger than many cities, said Cal Fire spokesperson Brice Bennett.

“You could overlay half of one of these fires, and it covers the entire city of San Francisco,” Bennett said Sunday.

He estimated more than 240,000 people are under evacuation orders and warnings.

Responding to the emergency, U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday issued a major disaster declaration to provide federal assistance. Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement that the declaration will also help people in counties affected by the fires with crisis counselling, housing and other social services.

Fire officials, meanwhile, have struggled to get enough resources to fight the biggest fires because so many blazes are burning around the state.

Karol Markowski, of the South Pasadena Fire Department, hoses down hot spots while fighting the CZU Lightning Complex Fire on Saturday. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/The Associated Press)

The wine country fire has only 1,700 firefighters on scene. By comparison, the state had 5,000 firefighters assigned to the Mendocino Complex Fire in 2018, the largest fire in state history.

“All of our resources remain stretched to capacity that we have not seen in recent history,” said Shana Jones, the chief for Cal Fire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit.

Underscoring the danger the fires pose for firefighters, the Sonoma County sheriff’s office released dramatic video of the helicopter rescue Friday night of two firefighters trapped on a ridge line at Point Reyes National Seashore. They were hoisted to safety as flames advanced.

“Had it not been for that helicopter, those firefighters would certainly have perished,” Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said.

In southern California, an 11-day-old blaze held steady at just under 106 square kilometres near Lake Hughes in northern Los Angeles County mountains. Rough terrain, hot weather and the potential for thunderstorms with lightning strikes challenged firefighters’ efforts to increase containment, currently estimated at 52 per cent.

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