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Firefighters make progress, but warn that ‘this is going to be a marathon.’
Strained by hundreds of fires that have burned through more than 1.4 million acres, California fire officials are warning that the state is now living through a “megafire era” in which blazes burn for weeks across vast expanses of land.
There are currently 625 blazes burning across the state, and they have scorched an area larger than the state of Delaware. Seven deaths have been linked to the fires and more than 1,000 homes and other buildings have gone up in flames, many of which were consumed by two groups of fires in Northern California — the S.C.U. Lightning Complex and the L.N.U. Lightning Complex — that are the second-largest and third-largest ever in the state.
“We are essentially living in a megafire era,” said Chief Jake Hess of the Santa Clara Unit of CalFire, California’s fire agency. “We have folks who have been working for CalFire for the last five years and that’s all they understand — megafires — since they started.”
“These significant incidents have been outpacing themselves every year,” he added.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state had “deployed every resource at our disposal” and had called for help from firefighters in other states to battle an extraordinary combination of active fires, many of which began after a period of nearly 12,000 lightning strikes just over a week ago. At this time last year, only 56,000 acres had burned across the state, roughly 4 percent of what has been torched so far this year.
The largest group of fires, the S.C.U. Lightning Complex, grew to 363,772 acres and reaches across parts of seven counties east of Silicon Valley. It was 15 percent contained as of Tuesday morning.
The L.N.U. Lightning Complex, north of San Francisco, grew to 352,913 acres overnight and has destroyed at least 937 homes and other buildings. Fire officials expect that many more homes will be confirmed to have burned as soon as damage inspectors can survey more charred neighborhoods. Firefighters have slowly made headway against the fire, and it is now 27 percent contained.
In Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties, the C.Z.U. Lightning Complex has destroyed at least 330 buildings and burned about 78,869 acres. More than 25,000 structures are threatened by the fire, but relatively calm and cool weather allowed firefighters to make progress battling it over the weekend, and it is now 17 percent contained. Chief Deputy Chris Clark of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office said seven people had been reported missing, including several in areas where the fire had burned.
Chief Hess, the chief of CalFire’s Santa Clara Unit, said that battling hundreds of fires at once meant fewer resources for each fire, and that residents would need to be patient as firefighters slowly chipped away at the blazes.
“This is going to be a marathon that we’re on,” he said.
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The Bay Area is in a state of constant anxiety.
Residents of the San Francisco suburbs are packing emergency “go bags” and drawing up inventories of their belongings, dreading the idea that they might need proof for an insurance adjuster if their homes burn.
The pall of choking smoke outside their windows — four times worse than the air quality in Beijing or New Delhi on Monday morning — is a reminder that the wildfires ravaging large parts of Northern California are only a few canyons away.
This is the fourth consecutive year of major conflagrations in California, but this year they feel more inescapable, a ring of fire around the eight million people who live in cities arrayed around the Bay. There are fires sandwiching Silicon Valley, which on Monday was smothered by a sickly white haze. Wildfires are raging in the Salinas Valley to the south and in the wine country of Napa and Sonoma Counties to the north.
But coming during a pandemic, amid a heat wave, and raging so close to major population centers, this year’s fires have spread enormous anxiety across a wide swath of cities in Northern California.
When Bay Area residents, especially those inland, step outside their homes, a wall of hot, smoky air smacks them in the face — as if they were opening the cast-iron door of a furnace in a Dickens novel.
California homes are often flimsy one-story ranch houses, constructed with the understanding that residents will spend a good deal of their time outdoors. But the pungent haze has left families barricaded inside their homes, every window shut as flurries of ash fall on their driveways.
“I’m numb,” said Marty Beattie, an air traffic controller, whose home in Fremont overlooks the smoke-cloaked hills on the edge of Silicon Valley. First there was the coronavirus, then the threat of fires and power outages, and now the smoke.
“It has gotten to be too much,” said Mr. Beattie, whose rental home is not far from the factory where Tesla makes electric cars.
Of everything ailing Northern California right now, Mr. Beattie finds the noxious haze the most troubling. “It makes me freaking ill,” he said. “It literally makes my eyes burn.”
Colorado, Montana and other Western states are also fighting fires.
Fire season is in full effect across the West, with fires burning in a dozen states leading to evacuations and unhealthy air.
Not only are states like Montana, Idaho and Colorado dealing with fires of their own, but their skies have also filled with smoke that has drifted over from California.
In Colorado, four major fires have burned nearly 200,000 acres, and poor air quality in Denver has led health officials to advise people to stay indoors and limit driving to reduce air pollution. An air quality alert is in place through Tuesday afternoon.
The largest fire currently burning in the state, called the Pine Gulch Fire, was sparked on July 31 by lightning. The other three major fires in the state were also ignited by lightning around the same time. The Pine Gulch fire has grown into the second largest in the state’s recorded history, at 134,999 acres as of Tuesday morning.
“In the last 30 days we’ve had over 200,000 acres of fire growth, which is pretty dramatic,” said Larry Helmerick, the fire information coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, which includes Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota and Kansas. Most of those 200,000 acres have been concentrated in Colorado, he said.
Fire crews have made good progress on the Pine Gulch Fire, which is now 47 percent contained and burning in a rugged, mountainous region north of Grand Junction.
Some rain may be on the horizon from storms moving up through the Gulf of Mexico, Mr. Helmerick said, which would help significantly.
Unlike in California, Colorado’s fires are not threatening a large number of homes or causing widespread evacuations. “It’s just another year of fires in Colorado,” Mr. Helmerick said, noting that in previous years, like 2012 and 2018, more than a million acres burned within his five-state area.
Though Colorado’s fire season used to range from March to September, that has changed in recent years, he added.
“Now we have had large fires every month of the year,” he said. “We’ve gotten them earlier and they’ve gone later, and we just need Mother Nature to help us a little bit.”
Schools are grappling with fires and coronavirus fears all at once.
Zanna Rosenquist, 17, was only two days into her senior year at Vacaville High School when she woke up on Wednesday to discover that her classes had been canceled.
She had been adjusting to the idea of learning remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic when a new threat appeared on the horizon: fires from the L.N.U. Lightning Complex. District administrators paused classes for three days because many students and teachers were evacuating. Some were losing electricity. Others were losing their homes.
Lauren Gammon, 16, a junior at the same school, watched nervously as evacuation orders emptied houses not far from her own. She was able to stay put, she said, but her boyfriend’s home burned down. “It was really heartbreaking to hear that his house was gone,” she said.
Several schools in Northern California are now dealing with a double calamity: devastating wildfires in the middle of a pandemic. In Santa Cruz, classes were suspended at least until the end of the month because of the fires. In Scotts Valley, an apologetic letter from the superintendent announced that the first day of school — originally scheduled for Monday — had been pushed back to Aug. 31, or possibly later. “We have again had to pivot and adjust to the latest crisis before us,” it said.
At Edwin Markham Elementary School in Vacaville, the fires forced the staff to switch gears. “A lot of teachers took it upon themselves to call their students directly to make sure they were OK,” said Jose Bermudez, the principal.
And many schools have turned into makeshift shelters offering their cafeterias or gymnasiums to evacuees, while encouraging them to wear masks and stay six feet apart.
Ms. Rosenquist and Ms. Gammon also sprang into action, working together to organize a donation drive on Sunday. They collected hundreds of items — including baby formula, children’s clothing and cat food — to distribute to families in need.
“We are still kind of in shock,” Ms. Rosenquist said. “But our town was really going through a tough time, and we had to pull together as a community.”
California’s redwoods can withstand fire, but another threat looms: climate change.
Among the hundreds of fires raging in California, one has drawn special attention because it has burned through a state park that is home to more than 4,000 acres of the state’s iconic old-growth redwood trees.
Big Basin State Park, about 40 miles south of San Francisco, has been closed since the middle of last week because of the fire, the C.Z.U. Lightning Complex. While most if not all of the park’s structures have been destroyed, little is known yet about damage to the coast redwoods, the species that grows at Big Basin and other parts of California within about 30 miles of the ocean, where they take advantage of the foggy, Mediterranean climate.
But Matt Ritter, a botanist at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo and director of the school’s plant conservatory, says there is probably little to be worried about.
“They’re ridiculously good at coping with fire,” Dr. Ritter said. Some of the redwoods are a thousand years old or older, he said, “and nothing lives for a thousand years in California without surviving many, many fires.”
Wildfire can sweep through a forest and not kill any of the tissue in a redwood’s trunk, where most of the growth occurs. In a mature redwood this tissue, called the cambium, is protected by up to two feet of bark. The bark is “insanely thick,” Dr. Ritter said, and contains compounds that are naturally fire-resistant.
“California has been burning for about three to five million years,” he said. “Trees have evolved in a fire situation to be protected against it.”
The trees, which can reach 200 feet or higher, also have few limbs within the first 80 to 100 feet. So other trees that catch fire — oaks, madrones or other species, or younger, smaller redwoods — may burn but the flames are unlikely to reach the redwoods’ canopy.
Fire in a redwood grove actually has benefits for reproduction, as the trees that do burn add nutrients to the soil. “Only after a fire do you get really good germination of seeds,” Dr. Ritter said. Over the years at Big Basin and other areas with redwoods, he said, controlled burns have been done for this reason — to encourage growth of new trees.
Large redwoods occasionally do die in a fire, Dr. Ritter said, but that usually occurs when a smaller burning tree falls against it and the redwood’s bark smolders and is eventually breached.
What has harmed the state’s redwoods historically has been logging, Dr. Ritter said. That was outlawed decades ago. The new threat now is from global warming and its potential to alter the foggy conditions in which redwoods thrive.
“These trees don’t have to worry about fire as much as human-caused climate change,” he said.
Reporting was contributed by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Jacey Fortin, Henry Fountain, Thomas Fuller and Lucy Tompkins.