Mega Fire Break: Thousands evacuated as California wildfires double in size
Dozens of lightning-sparked California wildfires grew rapidly on Thursday, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate homes in the San Francisco Bay Area.
California has been hit by its worst lightning storms in nearly two decades, with around 11,000 strikes igniting over 370 fires this week and stretching fire fighting resources to the limit, authorities said.
At least nine fires raced through hills and mountains in the North Bay’s wine country about 35 miles (56 km) southwest of Sacramento, destroying over 105 homes and other structures.
Together they have doubled in size to 131,000 acres (53,000-hectares) since Wednesday, forming a “mega fire” 10 times larger than New York’s Manhattan Island across Napa, Yolo, Solano and two other counties.
Collectively known as the LNU Complex Fire, they sent wind-driven flames racing 120 feet a minute across grassland parched by record-breaking, triple-digit heat, according to fire authority Cal Fire.
“It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen, the heat, and it came so fast,” said Fairfield evacuee Stacy Kline.
A Vacaville PG&E utility worker died on Wednesday helping first responders, and at least four civilians were injured, according to a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) spokeswoman.
In central California a fire fighting helicopter crashed in Fresno County about 160 miles (260 km) south of San Francisco on Wednesday, killing contract pilot Mike Fournier, 52, a former TV helicopter pilot and high school football coach, his family said.
South of San Francisco, a cluster of lightning-strike fires doubled in size to 40,000 acres in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties around 13 miles south of Palo Alto, injuring three first responders, forcing 22,000 to evacuate and destroying 20 structures, CalFire said.
Another group of 20 fires, called the SCU Lightning Complex, jumped by nearly a third to around 140,000 acres on Thursday some 20 miles east of Palo Alto across four counties, injuring two first responders.
California has warmed 1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the beginning of the 20th century, and higher temperatures are blamed for longer and more intense fire seasons that have caused eight of its 10 largest wildfires in the last 15 years.
Governor Gavin Newsom requested 375 fire crews from out of state as resources ran thin, in part as prisoners normally conscripted into fire fighting were locked down for COVID-19 or released from prison to slow the spread of the virus.
To the east in drought-stricken Colorado, the state’s second-largest wildfire in history grew slightly to 121,781 acres, containment ticking up to 14 percent as it burned in remote mountains near Grand Junction, about 190 miles west of Denver.