California wildfires: Trump declares major disaster as tens of thousands evacuate

​At least six people have died as result of multiple blazes

Sam Hancock
Monday 24 August 2020 00:43
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California wildfire camera destroyed by fast-moving blaze

Firefighters from across the western United States, military planes and National Guards have poured into California to join the fight against two dozen major wildfires after Donald Trump declared a disaster in the state.

The worst of the blazes, including the second and third largest wildfires in recorded Californian history, were burning in and around the San Francisco Bay Area, where more than 200,000 people have been told to flee their homes as officials warned of more dry lightning storms approaching.

The move by Mr Trump means federal aid and assistance will be provided to the state. Gavin Newsom, California’s governor, has assured residents that the aid will also be used to help people in counties affected by the fires with crisis counselling, housing and other social services.

Higher winds, temperatures and further lightning were forecast to hit northern California on Sunday, leaving officials worried that further damage is inevitable and residents are being told to prepare to flee any moment.

State fire officials have said that since 15 August, more than 12,000 lightning strikes across the state have ignited over 500 wildfires. A persistent heatwave is thought to have stoked the fires too.

Most of the destruction has been caused by three large fire complexes that were burning through mountainous and wooded rural areas in and around the wine country and the San Francisco Bay Area.

​At least six people have died and tens of thousands have been evacuated.

“We simply haven’t seen anything like this in many, many years,” said Mr Newsom, who has requested help to contain the fires from Canada, 10 other US states and Australia. The fires are “stretching our resources, our personnel”, the governor added.

California’s fire department has issued various statements concerning the inadequate amount of people there are available to help fight the fires.

“All of our resources remain stretched to capacity that we have not seen in recent history,” said Shana Jones, the chief for CalFire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit.

It is estimated that over 14,000 firefighters are battling 585 fires that have now burnt almost 1 million acres (400,000 hectares).

Hank Hanson, 81, of Vacaville, said: “Tuesday night when I went to bed I had a beautiful home on a beautiful ranch. By Wednesday night, I have nothing but a bunch of ashes.”

As well as people and homes, the fires have killed precious forestry. Ancient redwood trees at California’s oldest state park, Big Basin Redwoods, plus the park’s headquarters and campgrounds, perished in the flames. Smoke from the fires also made the region’s air quality dangerous, forcing people to stay inside.

Cooler, more humid temperatures on Saturday meant that firefighters, who the Associated Press reports are working 72-hour shifts in dangerous, hot conditions, made some progress in the race to extinguish the blazes. There were some setbacks, though, as smokey skies meant water-dropping aircraft were grounded for some of the day.

Why wildfires are everyone's problem

The dramatic change in weather, which has seen forecasters issue a red flag warning to last from Sunday morning until Monday night, and the threat of more storms, could not only start new fires but fuel the flames already burning, officials have warned.

The National Weather Service said “lightning and gusty, erratic winds around storms will be the main threat” for some communities, although the change in the wind’s direction does mean previously at-risk areas are now in the clear.

“As bad as that weather prediction is overall for certain parts of this fire, it actually is going to help us move it away from those certain communities,” said Chief Mark Brunton, a battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the state’s firefighting agency.

The threat of the fires has in no way diminished yet though. Two of the three main complexes, the LNU Lightning Complex and the SCU Lightning Complex, now rank as the second and third-largest on record in California’s history. The state’s largest fire in history is still the Mendocino Complex of 2018.

The blazes are not only straining California’s fire service but its public health service too. The state has been hit hard by coronavirus and with more than 650,000 recorded cases, it is officially the most infected area in the US. Because of this, some evacuees have said they are afraid to go to emergency shelters.

US agencies have updated evacuation guidance in light of Covid-19. People who have been forced to flee their homes have had to decide whether they will stay with family and friends or at evacuation centres, where they risk being exposed to the virus.

Official advice to anyone leaving their home due to the wildfires is to carry at least two face masks per person, as well as hand sanitiser, soap and disinfectant wipes.

Additional reporting by agencies

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