With more than 1 million acres already burned in California since July, emergency officials braced for yet another day of dangerous fire weather on Sunday as a series of deadly blazes around the Bay Area have destroyed hundreds of homes and sent tens of thousands fleeing.
The second and third largest fires in California history are expected to grow in the next few days as a new thunderstorm system will move over the state, producing dry lightning and gusty winds.
The National Weather Service issued red-flag warnings across large swaths of Northern and Central California that are set to go into effect before sunrise Sunday.
The storm system will develop frequent lightning strikes and gusty erratic outflow winds, forecasters said.
The new weather system is unwelcome news for firefighters who are already stretched thin as they battle multiple fires throughout the state.
Firefighters on Saturday were battling dangerous blazes from the Santa Cruz Mountains to wine country and beyond, using a small break in the weather amid warnings that more lightning — which sparked many of the fires — could return Sunday.
Also on Saturday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the White House has approved California’s request for a presidential major disaster declaration to bolster the state’s emergency response to wildfires burning in Northern California.
The burning of about 1.1 million acres in California in just a month, according to a Times analysis, is an astonishing toll so early in fire season. In all of 2019, more than 259,000 acres in California burned, according to the Idaho-based National Interagency Fire Center.
In all, more than 977,000 acres have burned in Northern and Central California — the equivalent of more than 1,500 square miles, three times the size of the city of Los Angeles. At least 744 structures have been destroyed in the last month.
Nearly a million acres have burned since Aug. 15, which marked the start of a “lightning siege” during which 12,000 strikes started 585 new wildland fires, officials said Saturday.
The blazes include the LNU Lightning Complex fire, which at more than 325,000 acres is the third-largest fire in California history. The SCU Lightning Complex fire, currently covering more than 339,000 acres, is the second-largest.
The fires, fanned by strong winds, heat and low humidity, have forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate and prompted the National Guard and U.S. military to send assistance.
The Guard is providing helicopter support and a dozen 20-person crews to fires throughout the state, and the military has sent several C-130 aircraft specially equipped to act as air tankers, said Jeremy Rahn, public information officer for the LNU fire.
Even so, authorities are reporting depleted resources, with manpower and tools stretched thin by the sheer scale and number of fires across the state.
One of the biggest concerns was 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 67,000 acres and forced the evacuation of at least 77,000 people, officials said Saturday morning. Officials evacuated the UC Santa Cruz campus and expressed concerns about some of the small mountain towns north of Santa Cruz including Ben Lomond and Boulder Creek.
The CZU fire has destroyed 97 structures and threatens more than 24,000 others. It is 5% contained, officials said Saturday morning.
Billy See, incident commander for the fire, said the weather forecast would make firefighting difficult.
“This red-flag warning is going to hamper all of our efforts,” he said. “We’re going to see an increase in acreage over the next few days.”
The LNU Lightning Complex fire has destroyed 560 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. Four civilians have died.
There were about 1,429 personnel fighting the fire as of Saturday, which Cal Fire Incident Commander Sean Kavanaugh contrasted with the Mendocino Complex fire in 2018, which drew about 5,000 personnel, and the Wine Country fires of 2017, to which nearly 6,000 firefighters were assigned.
Still, the fire remains the state’s top priority for resources as they become available, Shana Jones, Cal Fire unit chief, said Saturday.
“Within an incident of this size and complexity, and with all of the fire activity throughout the state, all of our resources remain stretched to a capacity that we have not seen in recent history,” she said.
Fire officials were bracing for a shift in the weather that was expected to bring more dangerous conditions. The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for the Bay Area and Central Coast that was in effect from 5 a.m. Sunday through 5 p.m. Monday.
Remnant moisture and atmospheric instability from what was once Hurricane Genevieve was expected to lift up over the area, bringing a threat of thunderstorms capable of producing 50-mph winds and cloud-to-ground lightning strikes, said Cindy Palmer, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Monterey.
She said that normally forecasters’ primary fear would be that the lightning strikes would start new fires, as the thunderstorms won’t generate enough rain to suppress the flames.
“But because we have fire already on the ground, we’re really concerned about the gusty and erratic winds as well,” she said.
Lightning was already striking off the coast, about 500 miles southwest of San Francisco, on Saturday afternoon, she said. Forecasters were predicting the brunt of the storm activity would hit California on Sunday into Monday.
On the eastern edge of San Jose, the SCU Lightning Complex fire has burned in multiple locations generally east of Silicon Valley and the East Bay and west of the Central Valley.
The fire started as 20 separate blazes but merged into three, which were mostly burning through grass and ranchlands. About 6,000 people were ordered to evacuate, and roughly 20,000 structures were threatened.
Authorities were concerned the change in the weather early Sunday morning could lead to more rapid fire growth. Meteorologists were predicting that starting about 5 a.m., winds would pick up, humidity would drop and more dry lightning could strike, said Josh Rubinstein, public information officer for Cal Fire.
“Those three things help drive or change fire behavior,” Rubinstein said. “So the message to the crews that are working out there at that time is to have a heightened sense of awareness.”
Like other fire officials, those managing the incident were contending with depleted staffing and equipment, he said.
“No fire has the resources that they would like to have right now,” he said. “This fire here, we would probably have 25 helicopters on, and we have five. Because there are other areas that need them more desperately than we do.”
He said the state would continue to assign aircraft and crews to areas where fire posed the greatest risk to life.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint — and not on just this fire, but some of the surrounding fires that we’re dealing with,” he said.
The Butte County Sheriff’s Office also issued an evacuation warning Thursday afternoon covering the areas of Philbrook Reservoir and Inskip. The county is contending with its own Butte Lightning Complex fire, a collection of 34 confirmed lightning-caused fires that have burned a combined 2,623 acres.
Also burning in California is the River fire, which has consumed more than 44,000 acres in steep mountainous terrain south of Salinas in Monterey County, destroying 16 structures, damaging eight others and forcing mandatory evacuations, according to Cal Fire.
At least 3,000 structures remain threatened by the blaze, which was 12% contained as of Saturday morning.
The Carmel fire, burning just southwest of the River fire, has charred more than 5,523 acres and destroyed 32 structures, fire officials said.
In Marin County, the Woodward fire had burned 2,259 acres in the Point Reyes National Seashore and was 5% contained as of Saturday morning.
The fire was chewing through huge Douglas firs draped with moss and knobcone pines mixed with dead brush, incident commander Bernard Spielman said Saturday.
“Stuff that’s usually dripping wet during the summer is not dripping wet at all,” he said. “It’s very dry out there.”
Two firefighters with the county fire department were rescued by helicopter after flames trapped them on a ridgeline Friday night.
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, which posted video of the dramatic nighttime rescue online, said the firefighters were about 75 yards from the advancing flames, which were creating their own strong, gusting winds that intensified as the helicopter neared the blaze.
A tactical officer was able to attach both firefighters to a 100-foot line trailing from the helicopter, which airlifted all three to safety.
“Had it not been for that helicopter there, those firefighters would certainly have perished,” Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said Saturday at a news conference. “So that’s a quick example that even public safety personnel are facing extreme danger, with fires that can quickly change direction under changing conditions.”
Times staff writers Joe Serna and Leila Miller contributed to this report.