Two of the three largest fires in California’s history are ripping through dry brush, forests, and homes, killing at least five people by Saturday in a situation that may only worsen the following week.
The early onset of the state’s fire season, which was triggered in part by unusually dry and hot weather, has created a worrying situation for residents across the state, many of whom are waking up to ashen skies and the smell of smoke far sooner in the year than normal.
More than 560 wildfires currently burning across the state have consumed over 1 million acres — larger than the size of Rhode Island — and destroyed thousands of homes. Two dozen of those incidents are considered major and burning largely out of control.
The five people who have died due to the fires so far include four civilians and one helicopter pilot, who crashed his vehicle while battling a wildfire in Fresno County.
Unusual lightning strikes last week sparked several of the massive blazes, and with more storms forecast for parts of California on Sunday and early next week, officials are worried about the potential for new flare-ups.
Two major groups of wildfires, the LNU Complex fire in Napa Valley and the SCU Complex fire, which spans the Central Valley and Bay Area, have already become the second- and third-largest in the state’s history respectively, and are barely contained. LNU has already torched more than 314,000 acres and 560 structures, while the latter has consumed nearly 292,000 acres and 10 structures.
“If you are in denial about climate change, come to California,” Newsom said in a dire video that aired at the Democratic National Convention Thursday.
These fires come as residents are still recovering from the deadliest and most destructive fire season in state history. The Mendocino Complex fire in July 2018 burned nearly 460,000 acres, the largest on record, while the November 2018 Camp fire, which was caused by downed power lines, killed 85 people.
On top of that, the state is also grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, which has hampered California’s ability to rely on thousands of inmate firefighters due to prison outbreaks. Evacuation centers, which help care for the state’s more vulnerable residents, are also struggling with how to house people while following social distancing measures and safety guidelines.
California’s fire season has been becoming longer and increasingly aggressive due to climate change, sapping and stretching resources as firefighters are continuously deployed to massive, concurrent incidents up and down the state.
The state has also been reeling from a historic heatwave that exacerbated the region's bone-dry conditions. On Saturday, some 13,700 firefighters took to the frontlines to try and save homes and increase containment, though officials are preparing for the grim reality that firefighters are in for a long fight.
“We are expecting more lightning tomorrow through Tuesday, and anything can happen when we have weather like this,” Lynnette Round, a public information officer with Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, told BuzzFeed News. “It probably will grow to be bigger.”
The combination of lightning, which is unlikely to be accompanied by any rain, will hamper efforts to control the current fires and likely start new ones, Round said. Since Aug. 15, nearly 12,000 lightning strikes have contributed to more than 585 new fires. Some of those have grown into large fires, which Cal Fire defines as more than 10 acres.
As the fires continue to prompt evacuation order after evacuation order, firefighting experts and scientists say 2020 already looks far worse than 2017 and 2018.
University of California, Berkeley, professor Michael Gollner, who studies wildland fires, explained that while the state has seen these types of large fires before, the size and scale of the simultaneously burning blazes are “shocking and remarkable” and highlight the dramatic impacts of changing climate.
In 10 days, the LNU and SCU complexes have already become some of the largest the state has ever seen. Normally, these types of fires are caused by or worsened by intense winds, but Gollner told BuzzFeed News that they "didn't happen under the highest wind conditions."
“They're just so large and so extreme. And these conditions are lasting for so long,” he said. “You can't stop them. No amount of manpower is going to do that. They're too extreme.”
The fires are also having a detrimental impact on air quality, creating an additional risk for those who are already vulnerable to the coronavirus. On Wednesday, California recorded the worst air quality in the world.
“If you imagine there's three of these once-in-a-blue-moon fires that are extreme, all pumping out all of the burned products. And there aren't incredibly high winds pushing it offshore — it's actually pushing in,” Gollner said, noting that the hazardous plumes could reach as far as the East Coast.
Meanwhile, Newsom said that the state is "putting everything we have on this," and called on President Donald Trump to declare the incident a "major disaster" and provide help.
Trump had previously threatened to cut off wildfire relief to California in 2018 because Californians didn’t vote for him, a former aide claimed earlier this month. He told supporters at a rally this week that he should “make [California] pay for it” for not clearing fallen trees and debris to his liking.
Firefighting reinforcements will be coming in from other states and countries, like Canada and Australia, Newsom said.
“We have people, but it's not enough,” he told reporters at a press conference Friday. “We simply haven’t seen anything like this in many, many years.”