Wildfires force new evacuations, threaten thousands of structures as California declares state of emergency


The Governor of California Gavin Newsom declared a statewide state of emergency on August 18, 2020, as a result of the ongoing wildfires and heatwave affecting the state. As of early August 20, more than 400 wildfires are burning across the state.

An 'Extreme Heat Event' struck California and surrounding Western States on August 14, causing record-breaking temperatures and Red Flag Warnings throughout California.

In addition to the fire conditions exacerbated by the heatwave, the weather event has resulted in widespread lightning strikes, sparking new wildfires across the state — currently more than 400 of them.

Several of these fires, including the River Fire in Monterey County, the Jones Fire in Nevada County, and the Gamble Fire, Hennessy Fire, and other nearby fires (collectively referred to as the 'LNU Lightning Complex Fire') in Napa County, have rapidly spread, destroying or threatening homes and critical infrastructure, and forcing the evacuations of thousands of residents.

Extremely high temperatures and dry conditions are expected to continue, which will further increase the spread of fires statewide and likely result in additional wildfires, further exacerbating the current wildfire situation in California.

A helicopter pilot was killed after the aircraft crashed while on a water-dropping mission in Fresno County, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) said. He was the only person aboard the helicopter, which crashed near the city of Coalinga.

"We are deploying every resource available to keep communities safe as California battles fires across the state during these extreme conditions," Newsom said in a statement, declaring a statewide emergency on August 18.

On Wednesday, August 19, the state's resources to fight wildfires were stretched to more than 23 major fires which burned homes, forced evacuations, and rained ash across the northern part of the state.

"The number of fires burning in Western states has resulted in a strain on California’s mutual aid system, making it increasingly difficult for jurisdictions to obtain the necessary in-state and out-of-state firefighting resources to respond to these fires," Newsom said Wednesday.

"Governors in Nevada, Arizona, and Texas have agreed to send engines or crews to support California, but the call for mutual aid from other states is complicated by a historic heatwave across the West."

More than 10 800 lightning strikes have hit the state in the last 72 hours in what has become an acute wildfire season, Newsom said, adding that California has experienced 6 754 fires to date this year, significantly more than around 4 000 in August 2019.

Nick Schuler, a deputy chief with Cal Fire, said Wednesday that the state had requested 375 engines from other states and called up every available private helicopter licensed to respond to federal and state incidents. 

"There are moments in time where the fire activity is so significant that no matter how much you prepare, the system will be overwhelmed," Schuler said.

Meanwhile, high temperatures have strained the state’s energy grid and resulted in power outages for hundreds of thousands of residents.

Image credit: NASA Terra/MODIS. Acquired August 19, 2020

The two largest clusters of fires are LNU and SCU lightning complexes. Together, they scorched more than 91 500 ha (226 100 acres) across 10 counties.

The LNU Lightning Complex is affecting Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo, and Solano counties. It has scorched 50 220 ha (124 100 acres) of land by late Wednesday (LT), August 19, and is 0% contained.

The Lake County Sheriff’s Office has issued an EVACUATION ORDER for residents living in and around Hidden Valley Lake and Jerusalem Valley areas of Lake County due to a Wildland Fire. This includes residents living North of Butts Canyon Road, South of Hofacker Ln to Morgan Valley Rd, East of Hwy. 29 and West of the Lake/Napa County line.

The SCU Lightning Complex — approximately 20 separate fires broken into three zones; the Canyon Zone, the Calaveras Zone, and the Deer Zone — is active across 5 counties: Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, Stanislaus, and San Joaquin.

As of 22:00 LT on August 19, it has consumed more than 41 300 ha (102 000 acres) and was only 5% contained.

The fires continue to burn in steep, rugged terrain and are influenced by extreme temperatures and low relative humidity. Some of the terrain has little to no fire history with decadent fuels conducive to extreme fire growth.

Much of Northern California has received below-normal precipitation leading to drier fuels. Lightning events are still possible in August and early September and the above-normal large fire potential will persist through October.

In Southern California, normal fire potential is expected across the region in August and September, but there will be an above-normal large fire potential from the mountains westward in October and November due to wind events, CalFire said.

Featured image credit: CalFire


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