Weather & Natural Disasters

Weather, reinforcements are helping in battling the California wildfires

Key Points
  • Firefighters hard-pressed by some of the largest wildfires in California history scrambled to take advantage of cooler weather and an influx of aid as they carved and burned containment lines around the flames.
  • Progress was made on three major blazes around the San Francisco Bay Area and the wine country north of San Francisco. One was 27% surrounded.
  • The fires slowed down at lower altitudes as a morning marine layer — an air mass drawn from the ocean by intense heat on land — brought cooler temperatures and higher humidity.
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Three massive wildfires are burning through California, forcing thousands of evacuations

Firefighters hard-pressed by some of the largest wildfires in California history scrambled Wednesday to take advantage of cooler weather and an influx of aid as they carved and burned containment lines around the flames.

"Every percent of containment is hours and hours of sweat and blood up on those lines," Jonathan Cox, deputy chief with the state's fire agency, Cal Fire, said Tuesday evening.

Progress was made on three major blazes around the San Francisco Bay Area and the wine country north of San Francisco. One was 27% surrounded.

The fires, which started as clusters of lightning-sparked blazes last week, slowed down at lower altitudes as a morning marine layer — an air mass drawn from the ocean by intense heat on land — brought cooler temperatures and higher humidity. The cooler air, however, didn't reach the higher forest and rural areas full of heavy timber and brush.

The marine layer was expected to spread into the Bay Area and the Santa Clara Valley overnight and the weather pattern was expected to continue through Friday, Cal Fire said.

Another fire in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, south of San Francisco, was 19% contained after burning 319 homes.

Chula Vista firefighter Rudy Diaz monitors the LNU Lightning Complex Fire as it engulfs brush in Lake County, California, U.S. August 23, 2020.
Adrees Latif | Reuters

"Another very positive day," said Mark Brunton, Cal Fire operations chief. "We got a lot of work done. The weather is cooperating with us. We're getting more personnel. As soon as they get in, we put them on the line."

The massive fires — coming much earlier in the season than expected — have pushed firefighters to the breaking point as they also deal with complications from the coronavirus pandemic and a lack of inmate crews.

Some firefighters were shuttled north after battling earlier fires in the south.

Tim Edwards, president of the union representing state firefighters, said 96% of Cal Fire's resources are committed to fighting the blazes. He was with a three-man fire engine crew that had traveled more than 400 miles (643 kilometers) from Riverside County to help fight the wine country wildfires.

"Between the fires in Southern California and these, they've been going nonstop," he said. "Fatigue is really starting to set in, but they're doing it."

Since Aug. 15, hundreds of fires have burned nearly 2,000 square miles (more than 5,000 square kilometers), an area roughly the size of Delaware.

The blazes have killed at least seven people, burned some 1,300 homes and other buildings, and prompted evacuation orders that still affect about 140,000 people.

A burned out vehicle is left in front of a fire- ravaged residence as smoke from the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire fills the sky Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020, in Boulder Creek, Calif.
Marcio Jose Sanchez | AP

David Serna, 49, a firefighter with the Presidio of Monterey Fire Department, was battling a fire in that county when his rented home in Santa Cruz County burned to the ground.

"I wanted to get up to the house and see what was left. Got up there and nothing. It was all gone," Serna told KTVU-TV.

He and his wife did find a metal heart-shaped decoration from their wedding day.

"All the years that I fought fires and seeing this type of destruction in other places," Serna said. "But when it hits that close to home, it becomes almost unbelievable."

In Vacaville, between San Francisco and Sacramento, 76-year-old Art Thomas said he found only ashes and melted metal at the site of the home he built with his own hands in a rural area where he had lived for 32 years.

"Possessions dating back to when I was a kid were all in the house, everything is gone," Thomas said. "Between sad, crying, laughing — every emotion is there."

He said he had left with his wife, two dogs and a pair of shorts and tennis shoes.

With limited crews to tackle fires on the ground, California has been relying more on bulldozers, aircraft and firefighters from other states and the federal government, said Daniel Berlant, Cal Fire chief of wildfire planning and engineering.

About 300 National Guard troops were finishing firefighter training and were expected to be on the lines Wednesday as another 300 begin four days of training, said spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Shiroma.

California has scrambled in recent years to field enough prison fire crews as their numbers dwindled while the state released lower-level inmates. Thousands more were released early as the state responded to the coronavirus pandemic.

A dozen inmate firefighting camps that had been forced to shut down in June for two-week quarantines because of the coronavirus are back in operation but the total of 43 camps are operating at about 40% of capacity, said corrections department spokesman Aaron Francis.

The challenge remains, however, as California heads into the fall. That's when searing weather and dry gusts have historically sparked some of the largest and deadliest fires.

Dustin Blumenthal of the Graton Fire Department watches over spot fires on Big Ridge, seen smoldering in the background, during the Walbridge portion of the LNU Lightning Complex fire in Sonoma County, California, U.S., on Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020.
Philip Pacheco | Bloomberg | Getty Images

California has scrambled in recent years to field enough prison fire crews as their numbers dwindled while the state released lower-level inmates. Thousands more were released early as the state responded to the coronavirus pandemic.

A dozen inmate firefighting camps that had been forced to shut down in June for two-week quarantines because of the coronavirus are back in operation but the total of 43 camps are operating at about 40% of capacity, said corrections department spokesman Aaron Francis.

The challenge remains, however, as California heads into the fall. That's when searing weather and dry gusts have historically sparked some of the largest and deadliest fires.