More than 1 million acres burned as California firefighters brace for new lightning storm
More than 14,000 firefighters battling numerous blazes hopscotching across California were bracing for dangerous dry lightning strikes and new fires Sunday, adding to the barrage of wildfires that have already gobbled up more than 1 million acres, destroyed hundreds of homes and prompted the evacuation of more than 100,000 people.
Red flag warnings were issued for nearly all of Northern California by the National Weather Service, signaling that the extreme fire conditions will persist through at least 5 p.m. on Monday. The ominous thunderstorm forecast called for erratic gusting winds of up to 65 mph, but will be accompanied by little to no rain.
The weather forecast is particularly concerning for firefighters trying desperately to contain the two largest fires in the state. The LNU Lightning Complex and the SCU Lightning Complex fires, both in Northern California, are now No. 2 and No. 3 respectively on the list of all-time biggest wildfires in California behind the July 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire that burned nearly 460,000 acres.
“We’re definitely far from getting these fires handled. We’re not out of the woods by far,” Shana Jones, unit chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, aka Cal Fire, said at a news conference on the LNU Lightning Complex fire on Sunday.
Jones said the incoming thunderstorm expected Sunday night “is going to likely result in additional fires.”
California, which has been devastated by massive wildland fires in recent years, has already seen nearly 12,000 lightning strikes in the past week, which, at one point, ignited more than 300 fires in a 72-hour stretch.
“With the weather predicted, the red flag warning issued, I can’t stress the importance of being prepared to leave,” Jones advised area residents. “If that tingling on the back of your neck says I need to leave, then please do so. Do not wait to be told to leave.”
The LNU conflagration — comprised of multiple blazes, some of which have merged — has already burned more than 341,000 acres across Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Yolo and Solano counties and was 17% contained on Sunday afternoon, according to Cal Fire. The fire, which includes the 287,811-acre Hennessy blaze burning near the Solano County town of Vacaville and the 51,000-acre Walbridge fire near the Wine Country town of Healdsburg in Sonoma County, has destroyed 845 structures, damaged 231 others and killed four people.
Farther south near San Francisco, the SCU Lightning Complex fire, also made up of multiple blazes, has scorched nearly 340,000 acres in Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. The fire, which has destroyed five structures and injured four people, was 10% contained on Sunday, according to Cal Fire.
A third major fire burning in Northern California was the CZU Lighning Complex fire in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties south of San Francisco. The fire was 8% contained on Sunday after burning 71,000 acres and destroying 97 structures, Cal Fire officials said.
Naomi Sokumbi, who evacuated from her home in Santa Cruz County to an emergency shelter, told ABC News that she is eager to get back to her residence but fears finding nothing left when she is allowed to return.
“The ground is still hot. So you have to be patient,” Sokumbi said. “It’s the worst waiting game possible.”
Cal Fire officials said there are at least two dozen fires simultaneously burning throughout the state. At least 14,000 firefighters, including crews from Washington and Oregon, were battling the flames from the ground and air, officials said.
The River Fire just east of Salinas in Monterey County has burned nearly 50,000 acres, injured four people, destroyed 16 structures and damaged nine others. The fire was 15% contained on Sunday.
Yet another fire burning across Butte, Tehama and Glenn counties had charred 52,200 acres since starting on Wednesday and was 20% contained on Sunday.
In Southern California, firefighters had gotten a handle on the Apple Fire in the Cherry Valley of Riverside County, according to Cal Fire. The blaze, which ignited July 31, was 95% contained on Sunday after burning more than 33,000 acres, destroying four structures and injuring four people.
Mandatory evacuations also were ordered in the Santa Clarita Valley of Los Angeles County, where the Lake Fire, which started on Aug. 17 in the Angeles National Forest near Lake Hughes, was 52% contained on Sunday after burning nearly 32,000 acres, officials said.
In addition to the fires, authorities were also on the lookout for looters.
A commander assigned to the CZU Lightning Complex Fire had his department vehicle broken into, his wallet taken and his bank account drained, Cal Fire Operations Chief Mark Brunton said at a news conference on Sunday.
“It’s saddening. It’s sickening,” Brunton said. “We are doing everything we can to try to help the community and unfortunately this happens.”