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Tens of thousands are under evacuation orders in California as more than two dozen large wildfires burn in the northern and central part of the state, with the most serious and urgent situation unfolding in the city of Vacaville, about 35 miles southwest of Sacramento. The city of 100,000 is under partial evacuation orders because of the advancing flames.
There, the LNU Lightning Complex of fires, which has burned more than 46,000 acres in Sonoma, Lake, Napa and Solano counties, advanced into the community overnight and into the predawn hours, prompting urgent evacuations with social media reports of homes consumed by flames as residents fled.
California’s heat wave and wildfires have ties to climate change
The scorching, unrelenting heat in the West and the ensuing fires are probably linked to climate change, based on studies to date. Climate research has consistently shown clear links between the severity, occurrence and duration of heat waves, like the one now gripping the West, and human-caused global warming.
Similarly, studies show that climate change is lengthening the fire season in the West and leading to larger blazes than would otherwise occur. The 2018 National Climate Assessment, which was published by the Trump administration, projected worsening heat waves and wildfires in the Southwest and West as climate change continues.
The exceptionally hot and dry conditions currently in the West are made possible by a significant ridge of high pressure, colloquially referred to as a “heat dome.” Air inside the system sinks and warms, while drying out and eradicating any widespread shots of rainfall.
On weather maps, a rare number appeared as a testament to how significant the heat dome is: 600. That describes the height in dekameters, or tens of meters, that the halfway point of the atmosphere’s mass is above the surface.
When air warms, it expands. When it cools, a volume of air shrinks. An air mass this hot expands a lot, causing a column of air to grow and raising the atmosphere’s halfway point. With this particular system, that level is 6,000 meters — or about 19,700 feet — above the surface.
This level “represents a threshold that is coincident with record heat over the Western United States,” wrote Ryan Maue, a meteorologist who operates the website weathermodels.com, in a Twitter message.
Instances of heat domes exceeding this 6,000-meter level used to be rare but have increased dramatically in recent years. Maue examined data back to 1958 and found almost all of the high-powered heat domes have occurred since 1983 — with the overwhelming majority of them occurring since 1990.
“[T]he 6000-meter club ’heat domes’ are certainly becoming more frequent b/c of climate change, now a nearly annual occurrence,” he wrote in a Twitter message.
LNU Lightning Complex fires have injured 4, destroyed 50 structures
As of 7 a.m. local time, four civilians have been injured in the LNU Lightning Complex fires in Northern California that forced urgent evacuations overnight in Napa and Sonoma counties. The blazes have already destroyed 50 structures, damaged 50 more and threaten 1,900 others.
The fires, believed to have been started by lightning strikes Monday, remain zero percent contained, according to an incident update from Cal Fire, the state fire agency.
Numerous roads have been closed in Napa and Sonoma counties. Nearly 600 people have been deployed in response to the complex, which consists of multiple individual fires, officials say. No first responders have been injured, according to Cal Fire, which notes that “air resources have been stretched thin throughout the region” given that so many blazes are competing for authorities’ attention.
Residents faced harrowing evacuations in Vacaville area
People fleeing the LNU Lightning Complex Fire threatening the Vacaville area shared harrowing stories Wednesday.
“We had to leave the car,” a woman identified only as Diane told Katie Nielsen, a reporter with KPIX 5, in a video posted to Twitter. She was still wearing a nightgown and had run nearly a mile to a main road, according to Nielsen.
“I got all these flames on me, I lost my shoe,” the woman said. “And I made it. God saved me.” It was a familiar scene for reporters who had covered California’s last few devastating fire seasons.
“This feels so horridly similar to what I felt when I was covering the Santa Rosa & Paradise fires,” Nielsen tweeted Wednesday morning, sharing a video of a home burning northwest of Vacaville, a community of 100,000 located southwest of Sacramento, against an orange sky. Sirens could be heard.
Resources to fight fires spread thin amid onslaught of blazes
With fires burning around the state, resources are stretched perilously thin and firefighters have grueling days ahead, officials warned Wednesday. Small strike teams are wondering what they can do to contain fires of more than 1,000 acres, they said.
Firefighters have had “little success” containing the lightning-sparked onslaught in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, said Ian Larkin, unit chief of the San Mateo Santa Cruz Unit, at a morning news conference. He blamed steep terrain, dried fuel and a “sheer lack of resources statewide.”
“Right now we’re in the position — we have no resources to put out on the line today, so we’ll be double shifting all of our resources that are currently on the line,” Larkin said.
That’s hazardous both for firefighters and the community, he said.
In Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, more than 22,000 people and 6,000 structures have been evacuated due to the 20-plus blazes dubbed the CZU August Lightning Complex, fire officials said. The complex pushed significantly into Santa Cruz County overnight, after the winds took a bad turn, and is now headed southeast — with communities out in front.
Buildings have been damaged, officials said, but the extent is not yet clear.
Evacuation centers have been set up in both counties, and officers are going door to door to help clear people out.
Map: Dozens of fires have erupted all over California
The scope of the fires facing California is unusually broad, with blazes burning across the state, from Monterey County on the coast, to near the Oroville Dam north of Sacramento, to near the Nevada state line in the south. Many were fire complexes, consisting of multiple individual blazes.
On Tuesday, the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates federal firefighting efforts, was placed on its highest alert level. And many of the fires were burning so intensely into Wednesday morning that their heat signatures were easily detectable from space.
For a detailed, interactive map displaying all of the documented fires, visit Wildfire Early Notification Map.
Record-crushing heat set stage for explosive fire growth
The rash of California wildfires has grown in the midst of an intense, long-lasting heat wave that has set records.
Between Friday and Monday, the National Weather Service has documented more than 140 record highs, most notably one of the hottest temperatures recorded on Earth, set in Death Valley, Calif., on Sunday.
Several other records have not only met or exceeded previous marks for the day they occurred but also for the entire month of August. Some of the August records include:
The searing 130-degree high temperature in Death Valley on Sunday has captured international attention. If confirmed, it will become the highest temperature measured on the planet during August and the third-hottest in any month. It would also be the highest temperature observed on Earth since at least 1931. The only two other hotter temperature measurements before that are disputed by some experts.
The heat in Phoenix has also been unforgiving. After posting its hottest month on record in July, it has hit at least 110 degrees for seven straight days. Highs are forecast to remain near or above 110 degrees for the entire week. It has reached at least 110 degrees on 42 days in 2020, crushing the previous record of 33 such instances in 2011.
The exceptionally hot and dry conditions are made possible by a significant ridge of high pressure, colloquially referred to as a “heat dome.” Air inside the system sinks and warms, while drying out and eradicating any widespread rainfall.
The fires in Napa and Sonoma come just a few years after devastating fires there killed 22 in 2017 and wiped out numerous wineries.
Sparked by lightning strikes and intensified by record-breaking heat, fires have erupted all over the state, spewing large columns of smoke and fouling air quality.
On Tuesday, the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates federal firefighting efforts, was placed on its highest alert level. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) declared a state of emergency due to the fires on Tuesday as well.
California has been battling a surge in cases of the novel coronavirus for the past two months, and evacuations may complicate efforts to get the virus under control, experts say.
Thick smoke extends from Northern California to the Pacific, and inland across the West
Smoke from the California wildfires stretches for hundreds of miles out into the Pacific to the west, and northeastward over Nevada, Oregon and Idaho. Satellite imagery clearly shows the dark smoke, which is worsening air quality in the San Francisco Bay area along with inland regions.
Smoke plumes from the most intense fires to the north and northeast of San Francisco can also be seen in the image, taken by NOAA’s GOES-17 satellite.
Homes destroyed in wildfire’s path to Vacaville
Multiple homes went up in flames Wednesday as the LNU Lightning Complex exploded in size and raced toward Vacaville from northwest to southeast, according to reporters on the scene.
One video from San Francisco Chronicle reporter Matthias Gafni showed charred ruins near English Hills Road, while another captured houses burning along Pleasants Valley Road. A gas line exploded by a house there, the Chronicle reported.
The Vacaville fire chief said Wednesday morning that he could not speak to damage outside city limits but that firefighters have been able to protect homes within their jurisdiction. Will Powers, a spokesman for Cal Fire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit, said he knows structures have been damaged, though he could not speak to where.
Powers said that he is waiting on numbers for total evacuations due to the LNU Lightning Complex but that 6,000 Sonoma County residents were told to leave as of Tuesday night.
That number will climb throughout the day, he said.
Powers said resources have been deployed toward “all parts of the fire” but added that firefighters have not been able to get to some areas because of steep terrain. They are hoping helicopters can combat the flames in those harder-to-reach places.
He said he couldn’t speak to the tactical decisions that — according to the Chronicle — left some homes burning without firefighters on the scene. But he emphasized that “those decisions were made for a reason,” with public safety and the safety of first responders top of mind.
“Statewide, we are stretched pretty thin,” he said, echoing other officials.
Thousands of homes under evacuation in Vacaville, where flames reached city limits
Several thousand homes are under evacuation orders or advisories in Vacaville, Calif., where a cluster of fires called the LNU Lightning Complex have grazed city limits.
Grim images are emerging from the area. Reporters shared photos and video of blackened land, burned cars and roads surrounded by flames.
But Vacaville fire chief Kris Concepcion told The Washington Post on Wednesday morning that firefighters have managed to keep the blaze from homes within Vacaville. Flames burned some fences along the city’s western edge, he said. All night long, authorities have been going door-to-door — they’re still going, he said just before 9 a.m. local time.
Meanwhile, firefighters are bracing for what Concepcion called “erratic and extreme fire behavior” fueled by swirling winds, dry air and scorching temperatures amid a statewide heat wave.
Vacaville is expected to hit 102 degrees on Wednesday, he said. “We’re just getting prepared for the long haul right now,” Concepcion said, adding the main focus is protecting homes.
The fires have upended lives already disrupted by the coronavirus. Classes — moved online because of the pandemic — have been canceled citywide because of evacuations, the school district announced Wednesday morning. Vacaville officials announced a steadily expanding list of evacuation advisories as flames headed for the northwest part of the city, adding new areas as recently as about 7:30 a.m. local time.
“Practically every single first responder unit in town is actively working to safely notify, evacuate and fight the fires, so our residents are safe,” the Vacaville Police Department tweeted. It was not clear Wednesday morning how many people have been evacuated from the area because of the broader LNU Lightning Complex. Cal Fire representatives could not immediately be reached.
California suffers widespread areas of unhealthy air quality as smoke smothers state
From Southern California through the Bay Area and Sacramento, the smoke emitted by the dozens of wildfires is compromising air quality.
Between the Bay Area and San Luis Obispo, the air-quality index plummeted Wednesday morning. Some areas were experiencing very unhealthy and hazardous pollution levels, the most extreme on the federal government’s scale, designated by purple and maroon shades. The levels indicate a high risk of adverse health effects for all people.
The poor air quality is especially problematic for sensitive groups, including children, older adults and anyone with respiratory ailments.
As the fires continue burning and emitting smoke, air quality is likely to remain compromised for days.
The bad air represents yet another public health challenge in California as it grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.
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