California wildfires scorch 1 million acres as state battles two of largest blazes in its history

More than 100,000 people ordered to evacuate as weather patterns and scorching conditions could spread fires

Alex Woodward
New York
Saturday 22 August 2020 21:59
California wildfires death toll reaches five as thousands of homes are threatened

Dozens of wildfires have scorched almost 1 million acres across California as officials scramble for aid to contain the raging blazes.

More than 100,000 people have been evacuated in several counties, according to Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency.

Nearly 12,000 firefighters are actively combatting more than 20 fires, each made up of several blazes, as California governor Gavin Newsom seeks support from neighbouring states and emergency services from across the US, Canada and Australia.

“These fires are stretching our resources, stretching our personnel,” the governor said during a press conference on Friday. “And not one governor has not been responsive.”

Ten states have supported California’s emergency responders with additional fire crews and aircraft dropping water and flame retardants. But Mr Newsom has urged additional support from the federal government.

“We have more people but it’s not enough,” the governor said. “We have more air support but it’s still not enough and that’s why we need support from our federal partners.”

Donald Trump has faced criticism for politicising the fires, telling supporters on Thursday that California officials “don’t want to listen” to his unfounded claims that raking forest floors would prevent the fires. A former Department of Homeland Security official also claimed this week that the president sought to withhold emergency relief to fire victims.

The former Department of Homeland Security chief of staff Miles Taylor has claimed that the president had ordered agencies to “stop giving money to people whose houses have burned down in a wildfire because he was so rageful that people in the state of California didn’t support him and that politically it wasn’t a base for him”.

At least six people have been killed, including three people discovered in a burning building in Napa, officials have announced. A helicopter pilot died in a crash above Fresno County while battling blazes there on Wednesday.

Hundreds of lightning strikes within a three-day period of activity ignited dozens of fires earlier this month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported. Electric fields produced during storm activity produced more than 10,000 bolts, striking vulnerable parts of the state seeing already-dry conditions in record-breaking high temperatures.

A series of blazes has engulfed more than 300,000 acres around Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo and Stanislaus counties in the so-called LNU Lightning Complex fire, and another set of fires has charred nearly 275,000 acres in Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa and San Joaquin counties in the SNU Lightning Complex fire – two of the largest wildfires in the state’s history. Firefighters have contained no more than 15 per cent of those blazes, as of Saturday.

The LNU Lightning fires have destroyed 500 buildings, mostly near the Vacaville area outside Sacramento, according to Cal Fire. Officials signalled on Friday that some residents could return to their neighbourhoods.

Roughly 20 fires in the SNU Lightning Complex around San Jose have also forced officials to order evacuations. At least two emergency responders and two residents have been injured, according to officials.

A Hercules C-130 aircraft drops retardant ahead of the LNU Lightning Complex fire earlier this week 

Another massive fire near Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, the so-called CZU Lightning Complex, has grown to 57,000 acres, prompting nearly 80,000 people to evacuate their homes and the University of California at Santa Cruz campus.

While several blazes have engulfed largely remote parts of the state, the fire reached ancient redwoods at Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

State park officials reported that the park’s “headquarters, historic core and campgrounds were damaged”, while the Sempervidens Fund, a conservation group dedicated to preserving redwoods, said the park “as we known it, loved it, and cherished it for generations, is gone”. The fate of its oldest redwoods, some of which predate the Holy Roman Empire, has not been determined.

The National Weather Service has also warned that weekend that thunderstorms paired with strong winds and dry conditions could prime parts of the state for more fires.

Smoke has billowed across California and neighbouring states as far as Nebraska. Air quality indexes have reached higher than 200, or “very unhealthy” levels in some areas, the weather service reported. Levels above 100 are considered unhealthy.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in