Firefighters in California saw some reprieve on Monday after dodging a major lightning storm in the San Francisco Bay Area, as the state continues to battle blazes the governor described as “historic”.
Two of the three largest wildfires ever recorded in California have scorched through more than 1m acres, displaced more than 100,000 people, and killed seven.
Officials are cautiously optimistic but pleaded with residents to stay out of evacuation zones and prepare for days away from home, as the massive fires near the Bay Area spread smoky air.
Dry lightning storms forecasted for the weekend spared the area. A highly unusual spate of dry lightning over the region had sparked the conflagrations that have stretched the state’s firefighting crews, and officials feared that the fresh round of storms on Sunday and Monday would stoke and feed the flames.
“The weather hasn’t been as significant as we were expecting, which is good,” Mark Brunton, operations chief for California’s fire agency, Cal Fire, said at a briefing about the CZU fire Monday morning. But, he added, “conditions are still ripe out there. Complacency kills.”
At the CZU Lightning Complex, a huge grouping of fires in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, south of the San Francisco Bay, authorities announced they had discovered the body of a 70-year-old man in a remote area called Last Chance. The man had been reported missing and police used a helicopter to reach him, among 40 off-the-grid homes at the end of a windy, steep dirt road.
The area was under an evacuation order and Chris Clark, the Santa Cruz sheriff’s chief deputy, said it was a stark reminder of the need for residents to leave the area.
“This is one of the darkest periods we’ve been in with this fire,” he said.
The fatality was the seventh in California since a record 12,000 lightning strikes set off 650 wildfires across the state. About 14,000 firefighters, 2,400 engines and 95 aircraft are battling the blazes across California, the largest of which include the CZU Complex; the LNU Lightning Complex, burning north of the bay through wine country; and the SCU Lightning Complex to the east. The latter two are the second and third largest California fires on record, each burning through more than 500 square miles.
Dry lightning overnight, which threatened to derail efforts to contain the fires, struck the Central Valley and western Sierra Nevada foothills but spared the Bay Area. The National Weather Service canceled its red flag warning for the Bay Area, though the potential for dry thunderstorms remains in northern California.
“Foundationally and fundamentally, we are deploying every resource,” Gavin Newsom, the state’s governor, said at a press conference on Monday. “We continue to battle historic wildfires, but we’re also battling this historic pandemic.”
The pandemic, which has killed more than 12,100 in the state and infected more than 668,300, has complicated the state’s response efforts. Those evacuated from their homes have had to weigh the risks of staying with friends and family or at evacuation centers, where they might be vulnerable to catching or spreading Covid-19. At evacuation centers, officials have set up tents for families so they can properly distance from one another and shelters are trying to get “as many air purifiers as we can”, Newsom said. Authorities have also secured hotel rooms for 1,500 evacuees.
Smoke and air pollution from the fires leave those with respiratory illnesses, who are at risk for severe complications from Covid-19, doubly vulnerable. Health officials have asked residents to remain indoors whenever possible to avoid breathing unhealthy air.
The unrelenting blazes have stretched the state’s public health resources and its large firefighting crews.
The LNU fire has been the most deadly and destructive, accounting for five deaths and 845 destroyed homes and other buildings.
Brunton, the Cal Fire official, said crews had been working exhausting, 72-hour shifts and resources were stretched. “This is a big monster” that crews are facing, he said.
Officials surveying maps at command centers were astonished by the sheer size of the fires, Brice Bennett, a Cal Fire spokesman, said. “You could overlay half of one of these fires and it covers the entire city of San Francisco,” he said.
Authorities said their firefighting efforts in Santa Cruz were hindered by people who refused to evacuate and those using the chaos to steal. The Santa Cruz county sheriff, Jim Hart, said 100 officers were patrolling and anyone not authorized to be in an evacuation zone would be arrested.
Among the theft victims was a fire commander who was robbed when he left his vehicle.
Holly Hansen, who fled the LNU fire, was among evacuees from the community of Angwin allowed to go back to their homes for one hour to retrieve belongings. She and her three dogs waited five hours in her SUV for their turn. Among the items she took with her were photos of her pets.
“It’s horrible. I lived in Sonoma during the  Tubbs Fire, so this is time No 2 for me. It’s horrible when you have to think about what to take,” she said. “I think it’s a very raw human base emotion to have fear of fire and losing everything. It’s frightening.”
The blazes have come before the traditional peak fire season in the autumn, when powerful offshore winds stoke and spread flames. Those fire-fueling winds are still expected in the coming weeks, said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA. But the unusual thunderstorms that followed a scorching heatwave, combined with a historically dry winter, provided both the spark and the kindling for the eruption of fire that has overtaken California in August.
The 1.2m acres that have burned in the past 10 days have far overtaken the estimated 259,800 acres that burned throughout all of 2019. In 2018, which saw one of “ the deadliest and most destructive wildfire season on record in California”, according to Cal Fire, 1.9m acres burned.
Although wildfire is a natural and necessary part of the ecosystem in California, the climate crisis is fueling more extreme, destructive blazes, Swain said.