Wildfires have spread across Napa and Sonoma counties in California following a series of lightning strikes that hit the area earlier this week.
Firefighters battling the historic blazes in Northern California made progress Tuesday in getting the massive fires under control after weather conditions helped them out the day before.
Temperatures cooled in the region, lightning strikes, many of which sparked the fires, decreased, and fire officials said they’ve had successes battling three blazes burning around the San Francisco Bay Area as they prepare for a “marathon” in the coming weeks to suppress the rest of the wildfires.
“The weather is really cooperating with us,” said Mark Brunton, operations chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which is known as Cal Fire.
But that good weather may not be here to stay: Temperatures are forecast to rise in the coming days into the weekend.
“We are going to return back to a warming and drying trend,” Cal Fire Assistant Deputy Director Daniel Berlant said.
September and October are typically the peak months of fire season, he said. “So to be in the middle of August and already have the second- and the third-largest wildfires in our state’s history is very concerning to us.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom previously said that the state was “deploying every resource we have at our disposal” as more than 14,000 firefighters battle more than 650 wildfires that ignited in August.
And Cal Fire is in talks with the National Guard and California Conservation Corps about providing reinforcements as the already devastating wildfire season threatens to get even worse.
At least seven people have died in the fires, and 1,400 structures were destroyed, Berlant said. About 170,000 people were evacuated, and although about 50,000 were allowed back into their homes starting Sunday, about 75,000 structures remain threatened by the fires.
Cal Fire officials say residents should still be ready to go at any time even if they aren’t immediately impacted by evacuation orders or advisories. And if the evacuation order for the area impacting their home hasn’t lifted, residents should stay out of evacuated areas.
Air quality is becoming an increasing issue. Much of the Central Valley is under an air quality alert from the National Weather Service. The concentration of “the tiny particles (PM2.5) in the Bay Area is roughly five times the daily average limit set by the EPA,” said Coty Jen, assistant professor at the Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies at Carnegie Mellon University.
“Even healthy people are reporting headaches, bloody noses, etc., during this current smoke event,” Jen said.
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Here’s what we know Tuesday:
Three of California’s largest fires continue to burn around San Francisco
Two fire complexes, the LNU Lightning Complex to the north of San Francisco and SCU Lightning Complex to the southeast, have grown to be the second- and third-largest wildfires in California history.
Three fires are burning on all sides of the Bay Area: the LNU Lightning Complex has burned 352,000 acres and was 27% contained; the SCU Lightning Complex has burned 363,000 acres and was 15% contained; and the CZU Lightning Complex to the south has burned 78,000 acres and was 17% contained.
Across California, more than 13,000 lighting strikes have been recorded since Aug. 15, igniting hundreds of blazes. More than 14,000 firefighters, 2,400 engines and 95 aircraft combat the fires.
“Containment numbers on a number of fronts have increased,” Berlant said Tuesday afternoon as firefighters made progress throughout the Bay Area.
The LNU Lightning Complex has been the most deadly and damaging in Northern California, having destroyed hundreds of homes and killed at least five people. More than 30,000 structures were threatened.
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The SCU fire, which has destroyed 18 structures and threatened more than 20,000, surpassed the LNU in acreage burned.
Other large fires included the Butte/Tehama/Glenn Lightning Complex west of Red Bluff and the River Fire south of Salinas, both of which had burned nearly 50,000 acres each.
In Southern California, several fires burned around the Los Angeles area but were closer to being contained.
Don’t go into evacuated areas: Fire officials say it’s still ‘highly dangerous’
State officials warned that the danger is far from over and admonished residents for failing to stay out of evacuated areas.
Six people who returned to a restricted area south of San Francisco to check on their properties were surprised by fire and had to be rescued, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office said.
Looters were warned they’ll be arrested if caught.
“It is highly dangerous in there still,” said Jonathan Cox, a deputy fire chief for Cal Fire, referring to the blaze north of Santa Cruz. “We have bridges that have failed, old wooden bridges that have failed that may not appear failed to people that they may drive on. It is not safe.”
After tens of thousands were forced from their homes, looters took advantage of the situation, authorities warned. One looter burglarized a firefighter’s marked vehicle, Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart said.
Redwoods, some 2,000 years old, survive flames at Big Basin state park
When a massive wildfire swept through California’s oldest state park last week, it was feared many trees in a grove of old-growth redwoods, some of them 2,000 years old and among the tallest living things on Earth, may have succumbed.
The historic headquarters at Big Basin Redwoods State Park is gone, as are many small buildings and campground infrastructure that went up in flames as fire swept through the park about 45 miles south of San Francisco.
But the forest is not gone, said Laura McLendon, conservation director for the Sempervirens Fund, an environmental group dedicated to the protection of redwoods and their habitats.
“It will regrow. Every old growth redwood I’ve ever seen, in Big Basin and other parks, has fire scars on them. They’ve been through multiple fires, possibly worse than this.”
Farther south, the Dolan Fire scorched through the Ventana Wildlife Preserve where dozens of free-flying California condors live. The blaze chewed up the vegetation, leaving little behind.
The Ventana Wildlife Society (VWS) has fought for decades to bring back the endangered native California vulture.
Although the wildfire has the potential to set recovery back for the condor by years, it could also be good for the birds, VWS Executive Director Kelly Sorenson said.
“We have good reason to be hopeful,” he said.
How to stay safe from wildfire smoke
Wildfire smoke can irritate your eyes, nose, throat and lungs, make it hard to breathe and make you cough or wheeze, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
To reduce exposure to smoke, the CDC recommends choosing a room that can be closed off to outside air. Place a portable air cleaner or filter in the room if possible, the CDC says, and wear a respirator to filter out smoke.
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Though most cloth or surgical masks will help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, they don’t keep people safe from harmful particles in smoke. A mask designed to filter fine particulate matter, such as an N-95, is best, though supplies are scarce because of the pandemic.
An air conditioning unit with high-efficiency filters can capture fine particles from smoke, and setting the system to recirculate mode can prevent outside air from coming in. Avoid burning candles and frying or broiling meat, the CDC says.
Contributing: The Associated Press
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