California wildfires kill at least 4 people as some evacuees weigh coronavirus risks

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    “We are experiencing fires, the likes of which we haven’t seen in many, many years,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

    Smoke from the California wildfires is seen stretching some 600 miles off the coast in a NASA satellite image Wednesday.

    Fires have scorched more acres than last year

    Statewide, there have been more than 360 recent fires — most of them sparked by lightning. Several of those fires spread due to high temperatures, inaccessible terrain and limited resources.

    Wildfires are ravaging California. Here's how you can help

    More than 20 major fires are still burning, and they had scorched more than 660,000 acres and destroyed or damaged 660 structures across the state as of late Thursday, said Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director of Cal Fire.

    That includes the two largest fires — the SCU Lightning Complex, burning largely north and east of San Jose; and the LNU Lightning Complex in the northern Bay Area, including Vacaville. By Friday morning, they had torched more than 229,900 acres and 219,000 acres, respectively.
    Roughly 15 miles north of Vacaville, fire killed dozens of animals that Christa Petrillo Haefner kept on her parents’ property — and nearly took her husband, she told CNN affiliate KCRA.

    “I lost seven goats, a lamb, about 75 chickens, 20 turkeys, five ducks and a mare — and a foal did not make it” because fire swept onto the property in Yolo County just outside Winters early Thursday, Petrillo Haefner told the station.

    The family fled unharmed in the middle of the night, but not before a close call.

    “(My husband) was up on the tractor doing a fire break, and … a big gust of wind came up, and the fire went literally up and over him,” Petrillo Haefner told KCRA.

    California wildfires have caused more deaths and destruction so far this year than all of 2019. All of last year, they charred a total of 260,000 acres and killed three people in the state, according to Cal Fire.

    Several global air quality monitoring websites show that the air quality levels in California’s Bay Area are worse than anywhere else, including locations generally regarded as having the poorest air quality such as India and eastern China.

    Flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fires jump Interstate 80 in Vacaville, California.

    Deaths reported in various counties

    At least four deaths were reported Thursday as a result of the LNU fire — the largest burning in the state. It consists of at least 11 smaller fires stretching across five counties in Northern California.

    Three of the deaths are from Napa County and one is from Solano County. In addition to the deaths, four other people were injured, Cal Fire said Thursday.

    On Wednesday, a helicopter pilot who was making water drops on the Hills Fire in Fresno County died in a crash. It’s unclear whether the pilot’s death was included in the four fatalities. CNN has reached out to officials.
    Tony Leonardini works on a spot fire  in Napa County, California.

    Evacuation stragglers are taking away from the firefight, official says

    About 64,600 people in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties have been told to evacuate because of the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire south and west of San Jose, according to Cal Fire Deputy Chief Jonathan Cox. That fire has burned 50,000 acres, he said Friday.

    “It could be potentially weeks” before evacuees in the Scotts Valley area just north of Santa Cruz city are allowed back on their properties, “depending on what this fire does,” chief sheriff’s deputy Chris Clark told reporters Friday.

    The Scotts Valley flames were not far from the University of California, Santa Cruz, where students were ordered to evacuate Thursday with expectations to “be prepared to not return for at least two weeks,” the school said on Twitter.

    Somewhere in those two counties, firefighters made three nighttime rescues of people who did not heed evacuation orders, Cal Fire operations section chief Mark Brunton said Friday morning. In some cases, he said, the people may have been trying to keep the fire from their property.

    The rescues “pulled our vital, very few resources away, to have to rescue those individuals because they put themselves in peril,” Brunton said.

    “If you have been (ordered to evacuate), please evacuate. Do not put yourself … (or) our first responders into that situation,” he said.

    Fire officials have said they don’t have an exact number on how many people have been told to leave their homes statewide.

    The top priorities are the safety of the firefighters and the public, evacuation planning, and the protection of structures and infrastructures, Cal Fire Operations Chief Chris Waters said.

    Governor slams power blackouts

    As if the pandemic, wildfires and scorching heat wave weren’t bad enough, some Californians have lost electricity as the state’s power grid struggles to keep up with demand.

    Rolling blackouts were implemented over the weekend when an intense heat wave caused record-setting temperatures across the state, including a high of 130 degrees in Death Valley on Sunday.

    Gov. Gavin Newsom demanded an investigation into the power outages, which he said are unacceptable.

    “These blackouts, which occurred without warning or enough time for preparation, are unacceptable and unbefitting of the nation’s largest and most innovative state,” Newsom wrote in a letter to the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Energy Commission.

    Dozens of fires are burning nationwide

    Over 11 million people are under an excessive heat warning in the Southwest, CNN meteorologist Robert Shackelford said. Triple-digit temperatures are possible in all these areas with temperatures still above average, he added.

    While the West is suffering record-breaking heat, wildfires are ravaging many parts of the US.

    At least 86 large wildfires are burning in 15 states nationwide this week — almost a third of them in California, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

    The fires have burned a total of 879,039 acres. In addition to California, some states with multiple fires include Arizona with 12, Alaska with seven, and Colorado with five.

    How climate change fuels wildfires

    Experts have warned that wildfires fueled by the climate crisis will be the new normal in California. Warm-season days in the state have increased by 2.5 degrees since the early 1970s, according to a study published last year in the journal Earth’s Future.

    “The clearest link between California wildfire and anthropogenic climate change thus far has been via warming-driven increases in atmospheric aridity, which works to dry fuels and promote summer forest fire,” the report said.

    Last decade was Earth's hottest on record, exposing grim reality of climate change

    “It is well established that warming promotes wildfire throughout the western US, particularly in forested regions, by enhancing atmospheric moisture demand and reducing summer soil moisture as snowpack declines.”

    Park Williams, the study’s lead author and a professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, said human-caused warming of the planet has caused the vapor pressure deficit to increase by 10% since the late 1800s, meaning that more evaporation is occurring.

    By 2060, he expects that effect to double.

    “This is important because we have already seen a large change in California wildfire activity from the first 10%. Increasing the evaporation has exponential effects on wildfires, so the next 10% increase is likely to have even more potent effects,” he told CNN last year.

    CNN’s Holly Yan, Dan Simon, Stella Chan, Brandon Miller and Jon Passantino contributed to this report.



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