Raging wildfires are forcing evacuations in Northern California.
Wildfires tore through Northern California on Wednesday, spreading rapidly and engulfing dozens of homes as firefighters battled to stop the blazes, which have forced a growing number of evacuations and were caused by an extraordinary number of lightning strikes in recent days.
There have been about 10,849 lightning strikes in California over the last 72 hours, a “historic lightning siege” that has caused more than 367 new fires, Jeremy Rahn, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said at a news conference.
People have been ordered to flee neighborhoods in Vacaville, a city of about 100,000 residents near Sacramento, as a combination of uncontrolled fires northwest of the city began to overtake homes. That group of fires, known together as the LNU Lightning Complex, has destroyed more than 50 homes and is threatening nearly 2,000 more, the authorities said.
It grew more than 14,000 acres overnight and now covers 46,225 acres in Napa, Sonoma and Solano Counties — larger than the size of Washington, D.C. — and is completely uncontained, the authorities said. At least four people have been injured in the fire, which has blanketed much of the region in smoke.
Videos from Vacaville showed flames leaping through one neighborhood, from trees to homes to picket fences.
Philip Galbraith, 52, said he and his 20-year-old son received no warning of the approaching fire until a neighbor began “desperately banging” on his door around 2:45 a.m.
“I got out of the house in pretty much what I had on,” he said. “I got my son and we left.”
The authorities have also ordered residents to evacuate in several other areas where groups of fires, also likely caused by lightning, are spreading quickly. The SCU Lightning Complex, a group of about 20 different fires, more than doubled in size overnight, and is now burning over 85,000 acres across five counties — largely in unpopulated regions near the Bay Area — and is just 5 percent contained. A third combination of fires, known as the CZU August Lightning Complex, has grown to 10,000 acres and forced evacuations in Santa Cruz County.
Firefighters had hoped to stop the spreading fires overnight, when they usually make the most progress, but gusty winds arrived instead, pushing the fire toward vegetation, homes and other fresh fuel. Some fires simply got away from firefighters.
Stretched thin, fire officials have requested 375 fire engines from fire agencies in other states and have pleaded with residents to be ready to flee their homes when instructed.
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Woken at 2 a.m., a Vacaville resident fled with his dog and not much else.
Clayton Jack, 31, a professional wrestler who lives in Vacaville, said he was woken up by a house guest around 2 a.m. on Wednesday and immediately smelled smoke in the air.
“I go outside and see the big, red, orange glow on the hill and then I see tons of light,” Mr. Jack said. “And then I see a bunch of cop cars that were driving up and down the street.”
Mr. Jack, who wrestles under the name Kal Jak, said that an officer told him it was time to leave.
“I was able to grab my dog, my own stuff, my laptop, my camera and then just from there I drove off,” he said.
In the car, Mr. Jack realized that he smelled “head to toe like fire,” he said. He drove past fire trucks equipped with spotlights and megaphones that were carrying urgent messages to evacuate.
“It was something out of a movie,” said Mr. Jack, who was able to leave Vacaville by 3 a.m. and drove northeast to Lake Tahoe, where his family owns a cabin.
“I’m very fortunate to have a place to stay at the moment,” he said. “Hopefully the house doesn’t burn down.”
Poor air quality is also a problem for many in Northern California.
The wildfires burning in Northern California are spreading smoke across a wide region, with the National Weather Service’s Bay Area office warning on Twitter that air quality in the area will be “very poor for the foreseeable future.”
And the combination of Covid-19 and smoke can be a dangerous one, as both damage and tax the respiratory system, making those already exposed to the virus more vulnerable.
Polluted air can also weaken the respiratory and immune systems of those who don’t have the virus, making them more susceptible to respiratory infections like Covid-19, according to the Washington State Department of Health, which has issued detailed guidance on the combined risks of smoke and the virus.
Studies have also shown that in areas with poor air quality, people are more likely to die if they contract the virus. And coughing, difficulty breathing and headaches are symptoms that both Covid-19 and wildfire smoke exposure can cause, making it more difficult to know which may be the source.
Solano County, which includes Vacaville and has about 413,000 residents, has been averaging about 76 new coronavirus cases a day over the last two weeks, according to a New York Times database.
Though it may seem fortuitous that so many people are equipped with face masks as the air quality worsens, health officials say cloth and surgical masks will not help protect against dangerous particles in the air caused by fires. Only N95 masks with two straps will properly protect the lungs, the Washington State Department of Health said.
The governor has declared a state of emergency.
Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency Tuesday in response to the fires, which have hit the state as it battles the effects of a sweltering heat wave, rolling blackouts and the coronavirus pandemic.
The move will make vital resources available to fight the hundreds of wildfires that are burning throughout the state and have been aggravated by the heat and sustained high winds, the governor’s office said.
“We are deploying every resource available to keep communities safe as California battles fires across the state during these extreme conditions,” Mr. Newsom said in a statement. “California and its federal and local partners are working in lock step to meet the challenge and remain vigilant in the face of continued dangerous weather conditions.”
The fires throughout the state have stressed the state’s mutual aid system, which has made it difficult for jurisdictions to obtain the firefighting resources they need, according to the emergency proclamation. The declaration enables Mr. Newsom to mobilize resources from out of state, a top aide to the governor said in an interview Tuesday night. The governor also mobilized the California National Guard to assist with relief efforts.
In addition to the fires tearing through Northern California, the Lake Fire has been burning in the Angeles National Forest northeast of Los Angeles for eight days, and has grown to nearly 26,000 acres. The fire, which is 38 percent contained, has forced people to evacuate, destroyed a dozen buildings and is threatening thousands more.
Further to the east, the Dome Fire is burning in one of the largest Joshua tree forests in the United States, in the Mojave National Preserve near the Nevada border. The fire has covered more than 43,000 acres in just three days and is 5 percent contained.
California has faced rolling blackouts as a heat wave raises demand for electricity.
The heat has also taken its toll on the state’s electrical supply, with operators of the state’s power grid twice ordering rolling outages last week and pleading with customers to use less power this week.
On Tuesday, as many as 2 million homes and businesses were warned they could be subject to rotating blackouts of an hour or more, but the California Independent System Operator said a reduction in demand meant that the outages were not needed.
Lawmakers and consumer groups have expressed outrage that the operator had not adequately prepared for the heat wave.
The blackouts, which started on Friday, were reminiscent of an energy crisis 20 years ago, when the state’s botched deregulation of the electricity system left millions of people in the dark and drove the wholesale price of power skyward.
Gov. Gavin Newsom demanded an investigation into why state regulators had failed to prepare for high temperatures, which had been forecast for days.
Officials have been bracing for the challenge of fighting fires during a pandemic.
As a punishing wildfire season has exploded this week across California, it has also tested plans devised months ago by state emergency authorities, who were predicting as far back as May that the coronavirus, climate change and the need to turn off the power in dangerous fire conditions would turn their job into “MacGyver on steroids” this year.
In an interview earlier this spring, Mark Ghilarducci, the director of the state’s office of emergency services, said the pandemic was already bringing “an almost oppressive level of complexity” to fire planning, from evacuation plans to reductions in manpower as members of inmate fire crews have been released from prisons to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“Things already are hotter and drier earlier in the season,” Mr. Ghilarducci said. “Looming in the background are the public safety power shutoffs that were infamous last year. And if that’s not bad enough, now we have to deal with a worldwide pandemic. In a fire season. With the power off. What else do you want from us?”
Mr. Ghilarducci’s remarks came as he was helping plan fire precautions that would be announced in July by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Among them: Protocols to beef up fire crews and to prevent the virus from spreading in evacuation centers.
The new evacuation rules include health screenings upon entry to a shelter, extra cleaning, prepackaged meals, separating evacuees with Covid-19 symptoms, and the repurposing of college dorms, Airbnb houses, campgrounds and hotels into evacuation shelters.
“We have to think differently,” he said. “We know sticking everybody into a big room at a fairground isn’t going to work this year.”
But, he added, “there’s no silver bullet.”
“We’re going to do our damnedest to keep people safe,” Mr. Ghilarducci said in May. “But this is like MacGyver on steroids. And failure is not an option. We have to find a pathway.”
Reporting was contributed by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Shawn Hubler, Christina Morales, Azi Paybarah, Ivan Penn, Derrick Bryson Taylor, Lucy Tompkins and Alan Yuhas.