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If Storms Hit California, Blazes May Be Tougher to Control

2020-08-23 04:33:27
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California firefighters had good weather on their side on Saturday as they battled wildfires that have torched nearly one million acres and forced the evacuation of more than 119,000 people from their homes. But their fortune may run out on Sunday, when storms with strong winds, lightning and little rain may return to the region.

Among the two dozen major fires pulling firefighters in all directions are two groups of wildfires that have swelled to become the second- and third-largest blazes the state has seen.

It may get even worse.

Fire officials are worried that another extreme period of lightning strikes — like the 12,000 strikes blamed for igniting many of the 585 new fires since last weekend — could roll through Northern California in the coming days, potentially bringing new blazes to the scorched region. On Saturday, the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for much of the northern half of the state from 5 a.m. Sunday to 11 p.m. Monday.

The storms could erase Saturday’s progress, when shifting winds allowed firefighters to construct a fire break that officials said would protect Santa Cruz and the University of California, Santa Cruz, campus from the C.Z.U. Lightning Complex. The campus was evacuated on Thursday because of the approaching fires, which have grown to 63,000 acres, consumed almost 100 buildings and are 5 percent contained.

East of Silicon Valley, the S.C.U. Lightning Complex group of about 20 fires — largely burning in less-populated areas — has grown to 339,968 acres and is now the second-largest in state history. It is 10 percent contained. The group of fires known as the L.N.U. Lightning Complex in Napa Valley — the third-largest in California history — has burned through 325,128 acres and consumed 845 buildings.

Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, said the L.N.U. group of fires was its top priority, but in a sign of how stretched the agency is, only 1,400 firefighters were assigned to battle it Saturday afternoon, fire officials said, and it was 15 percent contained. Chief Sean Kavanaugh, the incident commander, said about 5,000 firefighters were assigned to the Mendocino Complex in 2018, the largest fire recorded in the state.

There are 13,700 firefighters currently battling the blazes, but they are up against an extraordinary foe that has burned through an area of land larger than Rhode Island.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has requested more firefighters from as far away as the East Coast and Australia, and on Saturday, he announced that the White House had approved a disaster declaration for the state. “These are unprecedented times and conditions, but California is strong — we will get through this,” Mr. Newsom wrote in a news release.

Many other fires are burning dangerously across the state. Two firefighters in Marin County had to call for a helicopter rescue after they were surrounded by the Woodward Fire, which is burning in a remote part of the Point Reyes National Seashore, north of San Francisco.

“Had it not been for that helicopter there, those firefighters would certainly have perished,” said Sheriff Mark Essick of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, whose deputy extracted the two men.

Smoke from many of the fires is pouring over San Francisco and other cities, making the air unhealthy to breathe. In San Jose, Concord and Vallejo, the air quality index has surpassed 150, meaning the air is unhealthy for everyone. Smoke from the fires has been spotted as far away as Nebraska.

Towering over the coast, straining for sun as they’ve done since before there was such a thing as California, the old-growth giants of Big Basin Redwoods State Park stood in flames on Friday. John Gallagher thought of his sons. Darryl Young thought of his father. Laura McLendon thought of her wedding day.

“It was evening and the sun was just starting to slant through the trees,” said Ms. McLendon, a conservationist in San Francisco who married her husband in the park three years ago next week. “We could hear birds. It was magical. Like a time out of time.”

Now the 118-year-old state park, California’s oldest — the place where Mr. Gallagher hiked with his children in June, where Mr. Young learned to camp in his childhood, and where Ms. McLendon repeated her vows in a stand of 500-year-old redwoods — has been devastated. Park officials closed it on Wednesday, another casualty of the wildfires that have wracked the state with a vengeance that has grown more apocalyptic every year.

From the Southern California deserts to the Sierra Nevada to the vineyards and movie sets and architectural landmarks left by modern mortals, little of the state has been left unscathed by wildfire. In the past several years, infernos have scorched the Yosemite National Park, blackened the Joshua Tree National Park’s palm-strewn Oasis of Mara, damaged the Paramount Ranch and eviscerated Malibu summer camps beloved for generations.

In a state that has historically preferred to focus on resurrection, the catalog of loss has again expanded, with the heartbreaking news from Big Basin at the top.

They charge into fire zones with 60-pound packs and three-foot chain saws, felling trees and hacking through brush to make wide paths of dirt around anything worth protecting. Bright orange uniforms set them apart from other firefighters — and identify them as inmates of California’s state prisons.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said Ricardo Martin, who became an inmate firefighter while serving a seven-year sentence for driving while intoxicated and injuring another motorist in a crash. “But we took special pride in being able to actually save people’s homes,” Mr. Martin said. “Everybody talked about that and how good they felt about it.”

Prisoners have helped California fight fires for decades, playing a crucial role in containing the blazes striking the state with more frequency and ferocity in recent years.

This past week, though, Mr. Martin and hundreds of other inmate firefighters were absent from the fire lines. They had already gone home, part of an early release program initiated by Gov. Gavin Newsom to protect them from the coronavirus.

That has highlighted the state’s dependence on prisoners in its firefighting force. California pays the prisoners up to $5.12 each day, plus $1 an hour while fighting fires. To critics, the prison program is a cheap and exploitative salve, one that should be replaced with proper public investment in firefighting; to others it is an essential part of the state’s response to what has become an annual wildfire crisis.

Again, California is aflame. What is it about California that makes wildfires so catastrophic?

There are four key ingredients. The first is the state’s changing climate. California has always had wildfires, since its low-rain summers tend to dry out vegetation, which serves as fuel when sparks strike. And while the role of climate change in any particular fire takes time and scientific inquiry to establish, the link between climate change and bigger fires is inextricable.

“Behind the scenes of all of this, you’ve got temperatures that are about two to three degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than they would’ve been without global warming,” said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. That dries out vegetation even more, making it more likely to burn.

Reporting was contributed by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Kellen Browning, Thomas Fuller, Shawn Hubler, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Aimee Ortiz, Kendra Pierre-Louis and John Schwartz.


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