California firefighters struggle to contain 560 blazes as governor asks for help

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Scorched homes and vehicles fill Spanish Flat Mobile Villa following the LNU Lightning Complex fires in unincorporated Napa County, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. The fire destroyed dozens of homes at the mobile home park with only a handful that remained standing. Fire crews across the region scrambled to contain dozens of wildfires sparked by lightning strikes. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

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CALIFORNIA (CNN) — California firefighters have struggled to contain massive wildfires that left at least four people dead and turned neighborhoods into ash and smoldering ruins.

About 119,000 people have evacuated the raging fires statewide after mandatory orders and recommended warnings, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday.

Up to 560 fires are burning across the state after a blitz of lightning strikes this week, he said. Almost every firefighting resource in California is battling the blazes, which haveburned more than 915,000 acres, Cal Fire said.

Of the hundreds of fires burning, at least 22 are major.Two of them — the 314,000-acre LNU Lightning Complex Fire in the northern Bay Area and Central Valley, and the 291,000-acre SCU Lightning Complex Fire largely east of San Jose — are among the state’s three largest wildfires in recorded history.

“These fires are stretching our resources and stressing our personnel,” Newsom said. “We have over 12,000 firefighters now actively working to suppress these larger complex fires.”

The LNU Lightning Complex Fire, burning across Napa, Lake, Solano, Sonoma and Yolo counties,has destroyed about 480 structures and is threatening thousands more, Cal Fire said. At least four deaths were reported Thursday as a result of this blaze.

“Extreme fire behavior with short and long range spotting are continuing to challenge firefighting efforts. Fires continue to make runs in multiple directions and impacting multiple communities,” Cal Fire said.

The governor said additional firefighting aid came from neighboring states, including 10 engines from Arizona, 25 from Oregon, and five from Texas and Nevada.

Though thousands of firefighters are battling the flames — some on 24-hour shifts — there are too many fires and not enough resources to prevent more homes from being torched.

“The fire conditions, the lack of resources, we’re doing the best we absolutely can,” Cal Fire section chief Mark Brunton said Friday about blazes north of Santa Cruz.

One of the reasons for the lack of resources is there are fewer prison inmates because of early releases during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Inmate firefighters “are an integral part of our firefighting operations,” Cal Fire resource management spokeswoman Christine McMorrow said. The early releases have meant 600 fewer inmate firefighters are available this fire season compared to last year.

Homeowner defended house with sprinklers on roof

The fires, largely sparked by lightning in the past few days, have been exacerbated by dry terrain during a torrid heat wave. And as tens of thousands of people heed evacuation orders, they’re weighing the risk of coronavirus infections as they decide whether to head to official shelters.

Just west of Healdsburg, a city of about 11,000 people in Sonoma County, the approaching fire had people rushing to leave with whatever they could carry, CNN affiliate KPIX reported.

Jason Passalacqua told the station that he worked all day and night to trim trees and put sprinklers on his home’s roof ahead of the fire.

“It’s scary at the end of the day and it’s out of anybody’s control,” he said.

Vacaville, a city of 100,000 people between Sacramento and San Francisco, is one of the hardest-hit. Fire has burned homes in and outside the city, though most evacuation orders there have been lifted.

California wildfires have caused more deaths and destruction so far this year than in all of 2019. Last year, they charred a total of 260,000 acres and killed three people in the state, according to Cal Fire.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park, the oldest state park in California, has been extensively damaged by wildfire, officials said.

Fires blanket parts of the West with smoke

Fires in California and elsewhere in the West are making for poor air quality, blanketing parts of them and the Great Plains with smoke.

The National Weather Service has issued air quality alerts for parts of at least six states: California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Colorado and New Mexico. These alerts warn of moderate to heavy smoke, and advises people — especially those with heart disease or respiratory illnesses — to consider staying indoors and limiting outdoor activity.

Several global air quality monitoring websites show levels in California’s Bay Area and Central Valley recently have been worse than anywhere else, including locations generally regarded as having the poorest air quality, such as India and eastern China.

As of Friday, 92 large fires were burning in at least 14 states, including 16 in Oregon, 11 in Arizona and five in Colorado, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Forecasters warn that weather conditions could worsen the spread of fires in some Western states.

Red-flag warnings are in effect Saturday and Sunday for an area covering about 214,000 people in parts of four states: Far Northern California; southern Oregon; Montana; and southern Utah.

Those warnings say conditions likely to start or spread fires — lightning, strong winds and dry conditions — are imminent.

The weather service also issued a fire-weather watch for a wider area — covering about 14 million people in California, Oregon and Nevada — warning of an increased likelihood for lightning and high winds Sunday to Tuesday.

Lightning from dry thunderstorms — meaning storms with little to no rainfall — along with gusty winds and low humidity could spark new fires and spread existing ones on those days, National Weather Service forecasters said.

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