With 367 wildfires raging, Cal Fire to all California residents: ‘Be ready to go

19 August 2020

Published by https://www.dailynews.com/

USA – Wind-driven, lightning-stoked wildfires tore through Northern California on Wednesday, rousting residents out of their beds, destroying dozens of homes near Vacaville and threatening hundreds more from the Wine Country to the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Carmel Valley.

Homes were also burning Wednesday afternoon in the town of Bonny Doon, just north of Santa Cruz.

Sunday’s historic siege of lightning, with more than 10,800 strikes, sparked 367 fires across the state — mostly in Northern California, Cal Fire said Wednesday, Aug. 19.

Unrelenting high heat and low humidity were bearing down on the region and the air quality in the Bay Area was the worst on the planet Wednesday. With so many fires burning sending smoke in so many directions, no matter where you were, it wasn’t clear which fire was responsible for the ash raining down on vehicles and homes.

“We are experiencing fires the likes of which we haven’t seen in many, many years,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday. He noted the Camp Fire in 2018 that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 86 people as well as the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County last year that destroyed 120 buildings were tragic, but concentrated in their areas, allowing multiple firefighting agencies to swarm the fires. This week’s lightning-sparked fires are more widespread and stretching already fortified resources thin, but many of them are in more remote areas. Still, he said,  “we have to maintain vigilance.”

California’s unprecedented convergence of calamities — heat waves and rolling blackouts, wildfires and coronavirus — were straining resources and emotions across the state.

“My recommendation is that all the citizens in California be ready to go if there is a wildfire,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynnette Round said Wednesday. “Residents have to have their bags packed up with your nose facing out your driveway so you can leave quickly. Everybody should be ready to go, especially if you’re in a wildfire area.”

Some crews were taken off the Lake fire near Lake Hughes to trek north to assist on those fires, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Kate Kramer said.

The three large brush fires in Southern California largely remained in place Wednesday. The Lake fire stood at 26,213 acres and remained at 36% containment. The Ranch2 fire near Azusa had burned 4,300 acres and was 19% contained. The Apple fire in the San Gorgonio Wilderness in San Bernardino County remained at 33,424 acres and 95% containment Wednesday.

Adding to the complexity of the Northern California fire response, twice as many evacuation shelters were opened in Vacaville to allow social distancing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. But there weren’t enough at 3:30 a.m. when Shawnee Whaley fled her home on Shady Glen with her mother following in the car behind. The senior center was already full, so they were sent to another.

“I could literally see the flames. I was frantic. I grabbed an empty purse, my cell phone, car keys and shoes,” Whaley said, wrapped in a Red Cross blanket and still in shock about their ordeal. At the shelter,  “we tried to go on our phones to see if there’s any, anything at all. Did it burn? My mom has five cats. Are they gone? I have a car that I drive to work. Is it there? I don’t know. Do we have a home to go home to? Literally, we’re in pajamas right now.

There are too many fires burning across Northern California to give them each their own name, so fire officials have resorted to lumping dozens of smaller fires together with an alphabet soup of names — the CZU in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties and the SCU in Santa Clara, Contra Costa and Alameda counties. The LNU Lightning Complex fire in Sonoma County grew large enough by Wednesday morning to garner formal names, the Meyers Fire, which had burned 2,500 acres and the Wallridge Fire, which had burned 1,500 acres.

With Cal Fire resources stretched thin and mutual aid on the way, tough decisions were made by the minute as to which areas get helicopter help and which don’t. Some 6,900 fire crews are working to put out fires across the state, but it’s not enough.

“We’ve requested 375 fire engines from out of state this morning,” Round said. “Originally we had asked for 125. Now we asked for an additional 250. We definitely need the help.”

Firefighters had trouble making headway containing fires overnight as temperatures remained high and humidity low even at night.

In Vacaville, the fire came so quickly on hard-hit Pleasant Valley Road on the edge of town late Tuesday night that rancher Taylor Craig didn’t have time to evacuate his goats, chickens, horses and llama.

He never received an evacuation warning on his phone, but from the time he saw the orange glow over the ridge at about midnight, the fire had whipped into his neighbor’s property in about 15 minutes. And suddenly, he and his family were running for their lives. Fortunately, a neighbor told Craig later that he had plowed through Craig’s fences to allow his animals to escape.

Craig didn’t know whether his house survived, but says he’s never seen so many days in a row as hot as this, and worries what that means for this fire and future blazes.

“I’m a climate refugee,” he said under a hazy orange sky, sitting on the stoop of his RV in a Walmart parking lot, where employees were handing out water, snacks and masks to other evacuees gathered there. “And these people are too, whether they know it or not.”

The blazes that make up the Santa Clara Unit Lightning Complex stretch about 50 miles north to south and had crossed into five counties, fire officials said during an update Wednesday morning. The largest and most challenging of the fires were in the Canyon Zone, the majority of which were burning in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties but had also spread into parts of Santa Clara and Alameda counties.

In Contra Costa County, the Deer Zone fires were expected to be “well contained in the next few days,” said Tim Ernst, an operations section chief with Cal Fire. Several fires in the Calaveras Zone, which splits the Santa Clara-Alameda county line, “have grown together” into one blaze, Ernst said, while firefighters continued to work to put out smaller flare ups before they also merge.

Fire officials hoped to divert resources to the Canyon Zone once they quell fires in the other two zones. The fires in the Canyon Zone were “very challenging,” Ernst said, due to its topography. Altogether, they had burned about 85,000 acres and were 5% contained as of 7 a.m. Wednesday.

In the Santa Cruz mountain town of Felton, evacuees gathered in a Safeway parking lot.

Donna Marykwas, 57, her husband, Steven Passmore, 62, and daughter Maya Passmore, 18, from Long Beach, have been living in their RV and were staying at Big Basin State Park volunteering as camp hosts this summer.

When the lightning storms thundered through the wooded mountains over the weekend, strong winds damaged their RV awning. Tuesday night, they were unable to retract it. As the flames neared and they were told to evacuate at 11 p.m., they had to load their dog, Skye, and cat, Junebug, into their pickup truck and flee.

“We were the last people out,” Marykwas said. They went to the Brookdale Lodge just south of Boulder Creek at first and had just enough time to shower off all the ash when they were told to evacuate from there as well, and by morning were in the parking lot of Safeway in Felton, with other wildfire refugees.

“It was just surreal, the sky was red, the light on the pavement was red, it was real smoky, and quiet,” Marykwas said. “I couldn’t see the wall of fire, but you could see the sky was red. I hope all the rangers and firefighters are OK. I hope everyone’s OK.”

Sitting on the tailgate of their truck under a hazy, smoky sky and rain of ash Wednesday morning while her husband shopped for some breakfast, Marykwas surveyed the dreary scene and wondered what now.

“I don’t know,” she said. “We really don’t have a plan.”

Staff Writer Brian Rokos contributed to this report.

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