Aided by weather and reinforcements, firefighters were cautiously optimistic Tuesday as they struggled to pen in California wildfires that have killed at least seven people and burned more than 1,200 homes and other buildings.
A warning about dry lightning and strong winds that could spark more fires was lifted for the San Francisco Bay Area on Monday morning, a huge relief to commanders battling three enormous blazes in the area and California’s wine country.
The deadliest and most destructive of the three, the LNU Lightning Complex in the wine country, was 25% contained.
Officials said progress was made against the CZU Lightning Complex in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties with the help of rain Sunday evening and calmer weather Monday. It was 13% surrounded and fire lines on the southern border were holding.
“With the clear air, we were able to fly a lot more aircraft,” said Mark Brunton, operations chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.
Chula Vista firefighter Rudy Diaz monitors the LNU Lightning Complex Fire as it engulfs brush in Lake County, California, U.S. August 23, 2020.
Adrees Latif | Reuters
“It is highly dangerous in there still,” said Jonathan Cox, a deputy fire chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, of the blaze north of Santa Cruz.
“We have bridges that have failed, old wooden bridges that have failed that may not appear failed to people that they may drive on. It is not safe,” he said.
California has had more than 13,000 lightning strikes since Aug. 15, sparking more than 600 wildfires statewide that have burned more than 1.2 million acres, or 1,875 square miles (4,856 square kilometers), said Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director with Cal Fire.
More than 1,200 buildings have been destroyed although the number is bound to increase as residents are allowed back into neighborhoods and inspectors get a better look at the destruction. Authorities for the fire north of San Francisco expect to allow more evacuees back into their homes, or what remains of them.
“This is an emotional time for many people, this is a time when that sinking feeling really starts to set in,” about the loss, said Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick, who is involved in efforts against fires burning in Sonoma, Napa and surrounding counties north of San Francisco.
A burned out vehicle is left in front of a fire- ravaged residence as smoke from the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire fills the sky Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020, in Boulder Creek, Calif.
Marcio Jose Sanchez | AP
Helicopters dropped 200,000 gallons (over 757,082 liters) of water on the blaze, he said, calling it “the best day yet.”
In addition to better weather, fire crews along with bulldozers and other equipment were arriving from other states.
“I think we’re going to have more days like this and hopefully get us closer to the end of suppressing this fire,” Brunton said.
But officials warned the danger was far from over and admonished residents to stay out of evacuated areas. Six people who returned to a restricted area south of San Francisco to check on their properties were surprised by fire and had to be rescued, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office said. Looters have been warned they’ll be arrested, and some people have been taken into custody, including a man found with $5,000 in his car, authorities said.
Evacuees tempted to return to check on their homes should think again, fire officials said.
“It is highly dangerous in there still,” Jonathan Cox, a Cal Fire deputy chief, of the blaze north of Santa Cruz. “We have bridges that have failed, old wooden bridges that have failed that may not appear failed to people that they may drive on. It is not safe,” he said.
An estimated 170,000 people are under evacuation orders and tens of thousands of homes remain under threat from fires around the state. Some orders were reduced to warnings Monday.
Elinor Slayer fled her home in the redwood-dotted mountain town of Boulder Creek north of Santa Cruz on Tuesday evening along with her four children when they started seeing burnt leaves and large pieces of ash.
“Luckily for me, I have a 13-year-old daughter who is very cautious about wildfires. We had bags packed already,” said Slayer, 48. “We hadn’t gotten an evacuation order yet but my daughter said, ‘It’s time to go.'”
The family is counting their blessings that everyone is safe and hoping their home is, too, Slayer said.
“We don’t know what we’re going to return to,” Slayer said.
The siege of wildfires in the state has been astonishing, especially since California’s peak fire season usually is during the hot, windy days of September and October.
Dustin Blumenthal of the Graton Fire Department watches over spot fires on Big Ridge, seen smoldering in the background, during the Walbridge portion of the LNU Lightning Complex fire in Sonoma County, California, U.S., on Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020.
Philip Pacheco | Bloomberg | Getty Images
In just a week, the LNU Lightning Complex became the second-largest by size in recent California history, followed by another fire — the SCU Lightning Complex fire that has burned into seven counties and is just 15% contained.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said that at this time last year, California had seen about 4,300 wildfires that burned about 87.5 square miles (226.6 square kilometers), while the toll this year is 7,000 fires and nearly 2,200 square miles (5,698 square kilometers).
“We are dealing with different climate conditions that are precipitating in fires the likes we haven’t seen in modern recorded history,” he said Monday.
The fires are blamed for at least seven deaths, among them 70-year-old Mary Hintemeyer, her boyfriend Leo McDermott, and his son, Tom, said Hintemeyer’s son, Robert McNeal.
McNeal told KPIX-TV that he lost contact with his mother Tuesday night as the fires sped up. He said his mother had tried to go into town earlier that day but turned back at a roadblock where authorities said if she went through she wouldn’t be allowed back. She returned home to get her boyfriend, who was in a wheelchair.
Authorities found their remains among the ruins on the Napa County property Wednesday, he said.
“Just get out, don’t wait,” McNeal told the TV station, urging people to follow evacuation orders. “If you think it’s going to be too much to get your sprinklers on before you get out of there, forget those too. Forget it. Get out. Just get out. It ain’t worth it.”