Environment

Raging fires, a heat wave and coronavirus: California battles several crises

Key Points
  • California, strapped for emergency resources, battles a slew of crises: rapidly spreading fires, rolling power blackouts, a stifling heatwave and a coronavirus pandemic that is made more dangerous as smoke affects air quality. 
  • California has been hit by nearly 11,000 lightning strikes that have caused more than 367 known fires across the state in recent days, 26 of which are major.
  • The LNU Lightning Complex Fire, a group of fires that have affected Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo and Solano counties, had burned more than 124,000 acres and was 0% contained as of Thursday morning. 
A Pacific Gas and Electric firefighter walks down a road as flames approach in Fairfield, California during the LNU Lightning Complex fire.
Josh Edelson | AFP | Getty Images

Major wildfires continue to spread across Northern California on Thursday as thousands more residents are forced to evacuate their homes and resource-strapped firefighters battle the blazes. 

California has been hit by nearly 11,000 lightning strikes that have caused more than 367 known fires across the state in recent days, 26 of which are major. The state's wildfire season is becoming much more destructive as climate change drives hotter and drier temperatures. 

As of Thursday morning, the LNU Lightning Complex Fire, a group of fires that have affected Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo and Solano counties, had burned more than 124,000 acres and was 0% contained.

Travis Air Force Base in Solano County called for a mandatory evacuation of all "non-mission essential personnel." Four residents have been injured and at least two people have died. A helicopter pilot died after crashing while trying to drop water in Fresno County and a Pacific Gas & Electric worker died in Solano County. 

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Wildfires rage across Northern California amid record heat and lightning strikes

California, strapped for emergency resources, has been battling a slew of crises this summer: rapidly spreading fires, rolling power blackouts, a stifling heatwave and a coronavirus pandemic that is made more dangerous as smoke impacts air quality.

The sweltering heat wave, which has driven temperatures in the state above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the last week, has caused the state's power grid to implement rolling blackouts.

Climate change has also expanded the fire season to nearly the entire year in California because dry conditions, heat and drought exacerbate wildfires. 

A view of the site of the Hennessey Fire exploded Tuesday afternoon and nearly doubled in size in a matter of minutes, on August 19, 2020 in Vacaville, California.
Neal Waters | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Over the past few months, the state has struggled to prepare for an especially busy fire season because the pandemic strained emergency resources.

The combination of bad air quality from the smoke and the spread of coronavirus is dangerous: Polluted air makes people more vulnerable to developing respiratory infections and weakens their immune system.

Studies show coronavirus patients in areas with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from the virus.  

Approximately 130 firefighters from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection are in quarantine from either contracting the virus or getting exposed to it. More than 600,000 people have been infected by the virus in California. 

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Firefighters are particularly vulnerable to the virus because they are crowded in base camps during outbreaks, which are hotbeds for virus spread.

During major fires, there's not a lot that fire departments can do to control the spread of the virus in base camps, since staffing shortages make rotating out personnel impossible. 

"My recommendation is that all the citizens in California be ready to go if there is a wildfire," Cal Fire spokesperson Lynnette Round said Wednesday.

"Residents have to have their bags packed up with your nose facing out your driveway so you can leave quickly," she said. "Everybody should be ready to go, especially if you're in a wildfire area." 

Vehicles catch fire in front of a burning home along Peaceful Glen Road during the Hennessy fire in Solano County, California, on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.
Philip Pacheco | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Stretched for resources, California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency earlier this week in order to provide more aid to battle the fires.  

"We are experiencing fires the likes of which we haven't seen in many, many years," Newsom said on Wednesday. 

California has had 6,754 fires so far this year, compared with about 4,000 at this time last year, the governor said. 

The California National Guard is helping relief efforts and firefighter groups have requested 375 fire engines from out of state to help fight the blazes. The governors of Arizona and Texas have also sent resources to California to help with the fires. 

Pacific Gas and Electric firefighters extinguish spot fires as the LNU Lightning Complex fire burns through the area on August 19, 2020 in Fairfield, California.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images