About 11,000 lightning bolts strike California, igniting hundreds of fires
Paul P. Murphy, CNN
Besides having the most Covid-19 cases nationwide, California is facing multiple crises this week, including dozens of major wildfires and surprise power outages as residents grapple with the heat wave.
Firefighters worked long hours to save communities in the paths of the infernos and requested 375 fire engines from out of state to help.
While the peak of the California heat wave has passed, more than 7 million people in the West are under red flag warnings Thursday — meaning “warm temperatures, very low humidities, and stronger winds are expected to combine to produce an increased risk of fire danger,” the National Weather Service said.
And across the Southwest, more than 26 million people are under heat warnings or advisories Thursday, including residents in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles, CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen said.
The wildfires in California have already torched 320,000 acres — and counting.
This week alone, about 11,000 lightning bolts hit the state within 72 hours — igniting hundreds of fires, Cal Fire spokesman Jeremy Rahn said. Statewide, there are a total of 367 fires — 26 of them considered major blazes, officials said.
Two giant clusters of blazes — the LNU Lightning Complex and the SCU Lightning Complex fires — are burning in 10 counties.
“This is an incredibly emotional and stressful time for many of us who have endured many fires and natural disasters over the last couple of years,” Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said.
‘We just grabbed a bunch of clothes and jumped in the truck’
Gus Valerian woke up Wednesday to someone pounding on the door of his home in Vacaville, about 50 miles northeast of San Francisco. It was about 2 a.m., and a fire official warned of the roaring blaze near his family’s 16-acre property.
Valerian rounded up his wife Kersti and their 3-year-old twins, Lincoln and Emmy, and bolted.
“We just grabbed a bunch of clothes and jumped in the truck, got the cats and dogs and headed off to Oakland,” he told CNN affiliate KGO.
Elsewhere in Vacaville, one of the hardest-hit cities, inmates and staff at a state prison are getting N95 masks to help with air quality.
The LNU Lightning Complex Fire affecting Vacaville has scorched more than 124,000 acres in five counties — Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo, Solano — and has prompted authorities to evacuate some areas. As of early Thursday morning, the fire was 0% contained.
Outside Vacaville, Thuy Ngo watched Wednesday as flames consumed the barn on his 30-acre farm property.
“We didn’t think the fire would come down here this fast,” he told CNN. “It’s just heart-wrenching. … It’s just gone.”
Evacuations are underway
The second biggest fire in the state — the SCU Lightning Complex Fire — has burned 102,000 acres. By early Thursday, it was 5% contained and had affected Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties.
A third fire, dubbed the CZU August Lightning Complex, has grown to 25,000 acres in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties. It was 0% contained as of early Thursday.
With the heat wave adding to the fires’ ferocity and speed, evacuations are underway throughout the region, but officials don’t have a clear number on how many people have been told to leave their homes.
The priorities remain the safety of firefighters and the public, evacuation planning, and the protection of structures and infrastructures, said Cal Fire Operations Chief Chris Waters.
Temperatures have topped 100 degrees in some parts this week. On Thursday, they are expected to be in the upper 80s into low 90s.
“The low humidity levels and gusty winds are allowing the fire to spread rapidly,” CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam said.
Governor says power blackouts ‘occurred without warning’
As if the pandemic, wildfires and scorching heat wave weren’t bad enough, some Californians have lost electricity as the state’s power grid struggles to keep up with demand.
Rolling blackouts were implemented over the weekend when an intense heat wave caused record-setting temperatures across the state, including a high of 130 degrees in Death Valley on Sunday.
Gov. Gavin Newsom demanded an investigation into the power outages, which he said are unacceptable.
“These blackouts, which occurred without warning or enough time for preparation, are unacceptable and unbefitting of the nation’s largest and most innovative state,” Newsom wrote in a letter to the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Energy Commission.
How climate change fuels wildfires
Experts have warned that wildfires fueled by the climate crisis will be the new normal in California. Warm-season days in the state have increased by 2.5 degrees since the early 1970s, according to a study published last year in the journal Earth’s Future.
“The clearest link between California wildfire and anthropogenic climate change thus far has been via warming-driven increases in atmospheric aridity, which works to dry fuels and promote summer forest fire,” the report said.
“It is well established that warming promotes wildfire throughout the western US, particularly in forested regions, by enhancing atmospheric moisture demand and reducing summer soil moisture as snowpack declines.”
Park Williams, the study’s lead author and a professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, said human-caused warming of the planet has caused the vapor pressure deficit to increase by 10% since the late 1800s, meaning that more evaporation is occurring.
By 2060, he expects that effect to double.
“This is important because we have already seen a large change in California wildfire activity from the first 10%. Increasing the evaporation has exponential effects on wildfires, so the next 10% increase is likely to have even more potent effects,” he told CNN last year.
Dozens of fires burning nationwide
While the West is suffering record-breaking heat, wildfires are ravaging many parts of the US — with red-flag warnings issued from the Northwest into the Rockies.
At least 77 large complexes of wildfires have burned in 15 states nationwide this week — almost a third of them in California, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
The fires have burned at least 649,054 acres in the 14 states where fires are still spreading, it said.
Some states with multiple fires include Arizona with 11, Alaska with seven, and Colorado with five.