Monster California Fires Threaten Dozens of Communities as Tens of Thousands Flee

Evacuations widened in the San Francisco Bay Area overnight as wildfires ringing the region scorched hundreds of square miles, edged toward San Jose and produced perhaps the world’s worst air quality.

Source: LA Times | Published on August 21, 2020

wildfires and smoke

In all, more than 349,000 acres have burned in Northern and Central California — the equivalent of 546 square miles, more than the land area of the city of Los Angeles. At least 134 structures have been destroyed, and the fire-fanning weather conditions that have brought record temperatures and thousands of lightning strikes in the past few days are not expected to abate soon.

One major cluster of fires overnight was in the wine country. The LNU Lightning Complex fire has blackened a combined 131,000 acres, destroyed 105 structures and triggered the evacuation of nonessential personnel from Travis Air Force Base in Solano County and patients from Adventist Health St. Helena hospital in Napa County.

“Extreme fire behavior with short- and long-range spotting [is] continuing to challenge firefighting efforts,” officials wrote in an update Thursday morning. “Fires continue to make runs in multiple directions ... impacting multiple communities.”

In Sonoma County, the city of Healdsburg was under an evacuation warning early Thursday.

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick stressed that residents who were ordered to evacuate should do so “calmly yet quickly,” and not delay in making their way to safety.

“We also are concerned that many people are pulling over on the sides of busy highways and roads to take pictures and view the fire,” he said during a briefing. “We really urge you to fight that urge and continue to evacuate.”

Residents also should refrain from returning to their homes until given official word to do so, he added. About 30,500 structures around the LNU Lightning Complex are still threatened.

“We have had some minor reports of people reentering evacuation areas, and they’ve had to be rescued,” Essick said. “When we have to rescue you from an evacuation area, it creates a secondary burden on police and fire services and adds to the problem.”

Harvest Echols is tired of running from fire, tired of packing up her kids, tired of her wine country town that seems to come close to burning every year.

“I want to move,” she said Thursday. “There are lots of more relaxing places to live.”

These moments seem increasingly inevitable in California’s pastoral farmlands north of San Francisco, with their rolling hills, old forests and miles of dry brown grass.

Though Healdsburg is only under an evacuation warning, Echols remembers the middle-of-the-night run she had to do last October when the Kincade fire was close enough that its orange glow crested the nearby hills. Two year before that, the Tubbs fire sent them running.

This time, it would be an organized retreat to a lake up north, an attempt to make it seem more like a vacation than another looming disaster.

Her husband, Healdsburg vice mayor Shaun McCaffery, said their anxiety is normal in the city, where for the last few days “people were getting anxious” and everybody is leery of the wind picking up.

“It just kind of wears on people that they might have to go,” he said. “It’s just triggering that emotional reaction in everyone that this is a danger.”

Gabriela Orantes lives farther south near Santa Rosa, but volunteers to help vulnerable Latino workers during the fires.

When the Kincade hit last year, she worked 12-hour days for a week at the evacuation center in Petaluma, acting as a translator for the many workers who speak not only Spanish, but other indigenous languages that often leave them with little information in an emergency.

She said she is “dismayed” that, though many in the Latino community have been forced to evacuate four or even five times in recent years, there is still, in her mind, insufficient outreach to ensure their safety.

“We’ve learned that we can’t count on the county messaging or the city messaging to be accurate,” when it comes to translations, she said. “It still feels like we are learning every time.”

Evacuation orders were also prompted on the eastern edge of San Jose by the SCU Lightning Complex fire, which has burned 137,475 acres in multiple locations generally east of Silicon Valley and the East Bay and west of the Central Valley. Flames were nearing the famed Lick Observatory, which serves astronomers from the University of California.

Officials on Thursday ordered additional evacuations, covering portions of San Joaquin County south of West Corral Hollow Road to the Stanislaus County line; west of the 580 Freeway to the Alameda County line; and east of the Alameda County line to the 580 and the Stanislaus County line.

Excluded from the order are the PAR Estates and Tracy Golf and Country Club, both of which are instead under an evacuation warning.

Additional evacuation orders were issued in the path of the CZU August Lightning Complex fire, which was raging in the remote mountainous area southwest of Silicon Valley, on the border of San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties. That fire has burned 40,000 acres and forced the evacuation of more than 22,000 people, officials said Thursday morning.

Jonathan Cox, a deputy chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the CZU fire has destroyed 20 structures and threatens 8,600 others.

The fire has caused extensive damage at Big Basin Redwoods State Park and forced the evacuation of staff, campers and other visitors. The state park, California’s oldest, sustained damage to its headquarters, campgrounds and historic core.

Cal Fire officials said Thursday morning that the fire was extremely active overnight, creating “significant burning conditions that were unprecedented and unseen by veteran firefighters.”

The fire was threatening the communities of Pescadero and La Honda in San Mateo County. In Santa Cruz County, structures have been lost in the Swanton Road area, and a Cal Fire station was under threat.

The evacuation zone for this fire has expanded rapidly and now includes the communities of Davenport, Ben Lomond, Boulder Creek, Lompico, Felton and the area of Zayante Canyon. Officials also issued evacuation warnings for downtown Scotts Valley, a mountainous city of about 12,000 people just north of Santa Cruz along Highway 17.

“I couldn’t stress more the importance of leaving when those orders come out, I really can’t,” Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Chris Clark said during a briefing Thursday. “There are people that are unaccounted for that we are looking to try to determine where they are, so I stress that because, with this fire, you just don’t know how things are going to go.”

The Butte County Sheriff’s office also issued an evacuation warning Thursday afternoon covering the areas of Philbrook Reservoir and Inskip. The county is currently contending with its own Lightning Complex, a collection of 34 confirmed lightning-caused fires that have burned a combined 1,900 acres.

Many of those fires are under control, fire officials said, and containment for the overall complex was reported at 20% as of Thursday morning.

The weather conditions for the next three days make the outlook grim, said Mark Brunton of Cal Fire.

“That makes that threat very direct and very real,” he said. “We’re doing everything we possibly can to protect life and property.”

Officials at UC Santa Cruz enacted voluntary evacuations for on-campus students and staff starting at about 1:40 p.m., with officials saying “if you have a safe place to go, please do so now.”

“At this point the evacuation is voluntary, but at any moment the campus evacuation could become mandatory,” officials wrote on the school’s Facebook page. “Once an evacuation order becomes mandatory, the campus will declare a campus emergency.”

An evacuation location will be set up in the area of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk starting at 2 p.m., officials added.

According to the website PurpleAir, the Bay Area was home to the world’s worst air quality overnight Thursday. Air quality is especially bad in Silicon Valley, San Mateo County and Livermore Valley, according to local air quality management officials.

“Smoke can irritate the eyes and airways, causing coughing, a dry scratchy throat and irritated sinuses,” the Bay Area Air Quality Management District said. “Elevated particulate matter in the air can trigger wheezing in those who suffer from asthma, emphysema” and other chronic respiratory ailments.

“Very dry and warm conditions will persist across the interior and in the region`'s higher elevations,” the National Weather Service said. “Smoky and hazy conditions are likely to impact portions of the region through at least this upcoming weekend.”

Given the unhealthy air and continuing presence of the coronavirus — which can spread through respiratory droplets — experts suggested that staying indoors at home is safest. But, if you need to go outside, wear a mask.

“We are in this perfect storm of a lot of uncertainty with not a ton of reassurance things are going to get substantially better in the next few months,” said Dr. Jahan Fahimi, director of UC San Francisco’s emergency department. “I think we’re hunkering down and preparing for kind of a longer-term response to what is happening in our community.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, 367 major fires were burning statewide, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“This fire season has been very active, and, not surprisingly, that activity has taken shape in a number of counties up and down the state,” he said during a news briefing.

At this time last year, crews had responded to a total of 4,007 fires throughout the state, Newsom said. They’ve already been dispatched to 6,754 this year.

Also currently burning in California is the River fire, which has consumed more than 33,000 acres in steep mountainous terrain south of Salinas in Monterey County, destroying six structures, damaging two others and forcing mandatory evacuations, according to Cal Fire.

Nearly 2,800 structures remain threatened by the blaze, which was 7% contained as of Thursday morning.

The Carmel fire, burning just southwest of the River fire, has charred nearly 4,300 acres and destroyed three structures, fire officials said.

Crews are also battling a sizable blaze in Tehama County. The Elkhorn fire, originally referred to as the 3-4 fire, broke out southwest of Red Bank Road on Wednesday and has already grown to 15,250 acres and prompted a number of evacuations.

There’s promising news, however, out of Southern California, where firefighters are making progress on a few older wildfires.

The Lake fire, which has burned a little more than 27,000 acres in Los Angeles County near Lake Hughes, is now 48% contained, officials said Thursday morning. That blaze started, which started Aug. 12, has destroyed 12 structures and 21 outbuildings.

Officials also reported 33% containment on the Ranch 2 fire near Azusa. That 4,237-acre fire started Aug. 13 and is the result of suspected arson, authorities say.

Crews are also nearing full containment of the Apple fire, which has charred 33,424 acres in the Inland Empire since it broke out July 31.

Progress anywhere is welcome news in fire-ravaged California, where the rapid outbreak of new blazes has stretched the state’s firefighting resources to their limit.

Getting a handle on some fires, officials said, will free additional assets that can then be redeployed as needed.

Given the severity of the state’s firestorm, California also has turned to some of its fellow states for assistance.

Jeremy Rahn, the lead Cal Fire public information officer for the LNU Lightning Complex fire, said Wednesday that the state had already requested 375 additional fire engines as well as additional hand crews from out-of-state agencies, and hired “nearly all available private firefighting ‘call when needed’ aircraft in the Western United States.”

“The size and complexity at which these incidents are burning is challenging all aspects of emergency response,” he said during a media briefing. “Firefighting resources are depleted as new fires continue to ignite.”

Newsom, however, expressed confidence that California is prepared to rise to the challenge and thanked the leaders of other states — including Arizona, Nevada and Texas — for their pledges to send additional resources.

California is “putting everything we have on these fires,” he said, and “we’re now getting the support of some of our partners in the Western United States, and for that, again, we’re very grateful.”

Newsom announced Thursday that the state had received a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that will allow local, state and tribal governments responding to the CZU August Lightning Complex fire to receive reimbursement for up to 75% of certain firefighting costs.

The state has also secured grants over the last week to help fight blazes in Monterey, Napa and Nevada counties.

Another wrinkle in this year’s fire season is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has raised concerns among displaced residents who would normally pack into emergency shelters and created new challenges for the agencies that operate them.

“This is obviously a new dynamic that we’re dealing with across the state in the COVID moment,” Cox said. “The recommendation ... is try to find family and friends that you are comfortable with before you go into these large environments with multiple people where they may be an additional risk for exposure.”