Environment

California battles more than 500 fires with no end in sight as emergency response stretched thin

Key Points
  • At least 585 fires have burned more than 900,000 acres, killed five people and forced evacuation orders for more than 119,000 people.
  • The fires have been the worst in the northern and central regions of California and are expected to expand thisweekend due to high heat and winds that will exacerbate the spread of flames.
  • Human-caused climate change is driving more frequent and severe heat waves and larger wildfires across the Western U.S. 
A firefighter rubs his head while watching the LNU Lightning Complex fires spread through the Berryessa Estates neighborhood of unincorporated Napa County, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020.
Noah Berger | AP Photo

Some of California's largest wildfires in state history are growing larger and more destructive, with no end in sight as emergency response efforts are stretched thin and tens of thousands of people are forced to evacuate their homes. 

At least 585 fires have burned more than 900,000 acres, killed five people and forced evacuation orders for more than 119,000 people.

The two major groups of fires — the LNU Lightning Complex in Sonoma, Lake, Napa and Solano counties and the SCU Lightning Complex in Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties — are the second and fourth biggest fires in state history, according to Cal Fire, the state's firefighting agency. 

Another blaze, called the CZU Lightning Fire in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, has forced evacuations of more than 64,000 people. 

The fire near Vacaville, known as the Hennessey Fire, part of the LNU Lightning Complex, has burned down houses and killed a Pacific Gas & Electric worker who was helping the response to the blazes. 

The fires have been the worst in the northern and central regions of California and are expected to expand this weekend due to high heat and winds that will exacerbate the spread of flames.

The state's fire season is getting longer and more destructive every year. Human-caused climate change is driving more frequent and severe heat waves and larger wildfires across the Western U.S. 

A home is ravaged by the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, in Boulder Creek, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez | AP Photo

"The hots are getting hotter, the drys are getting drier," Gov. Gavin Newsom recently said in a video addressing the Democratic National Convention. 

"Climate change is real. If you are in denial about climate change, come to California," Newsom said. 

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A stifling heat wave and intense thunder storms caused more than 20,000 lightning strikes in the state, sparking a good portion of the fires and fire complexes.

The blazes are releasing a tremendous amount of smoke and pollution into the area while the state grapples with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

The heat wave has driven temperatures throughout the week above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and has prompted rolling blackouts as the demand for electricity and air conditioning is high.

Firefighters make a stand in the backyard of a home in front of the advancing CZU August Lightning Complex Fire Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, in Boulder Creek, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez | AP Photo

The smoke from the fires has created a dangerous health situation, especially for those vulnerable to developing respiratory infections, as lower air quality can weaken the immune system. 

Studies show coronavirus patients in areas with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from Covid-19. 

The governor, stretched thin on emergency response crews to battle the fires, has called on the California National Guard, deployed almost 12,000 firefighters statewide and requested help from many states.

Ten states have sent fire crews, engines and aircraft to help contain the blazes, Newsom said. 

Emergency response preparation for California's fire season was already stalled in April when the coronavirus infected firefighters and raised fears of virus outbreaks at firefighter base camps.  

The coronavirus now threatens further infections at evacuation shelters and crowded base camps where firefighters live after working long hours fighting the blazes. 

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Wildfires ripping across California force thousands to flee—Here's what's happening