Cooler weather in California has helped crews battling massive wildfires that have already collectively burned an area bigger than the state of Delaware and killed at least seven people, officials said.
About two dozen major fires and clusters of fires known as complexes continued to burn in California on Tuesday, with the three largest in the northern part of the state.
“But containment numbers are up,” Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said in an update Tuesday.
At least 1,400 homes and other structures have been destroyed, and that number could grow to more than 3,000, he said.
Hundreds of fires have been sparked by more than 13,000 lightning strikes since Aug. 15, officials said. The fires have been fueled by extreme temperatures and high winds. Nearly 136,000 people were still evacuated statewide Tuesday, Cal Fire said.
The largest fire, the SCU Lightning Complex, burning east of San Jose in seven counties, was the second-largest fire in state history at more than 365,700 acres burned, followed by another fire complex currently burning, the LNU Lightning Complex which was at more than 356,300 acres.
More than 970 homes and other structures have been confirmed to have been destroyed by the LNU complex, which is burning north and northeast of San Francisco, according to Cal Fire.
Art Thomas, 76, returned to the outskirts of Vacaville and found only ashes and melted metal.
He fled the home he built with his own hands in a rural area where he had lived for 32 years with his wife and two dogs.
“Possessions dating back to when I was a kid were all in the house, everything is gone,” Thomas told The Associated Press. “Between sad, crying, laughing every emotion is there.”
The LNU complex has been the deadliest of the lightning-sparked fires, with five people killed — two in Solano County and three in Napa County.
There has also been one death on another major complex of fires, the CZU Lightning Complex in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties; and a helicopter pilot died after the aircraft he was in crashed while conducting water drops on a smaller fire, the Hills Fire in Fresno County.
On the LNU complex, plans were being made to repopulate some evacuated areas, but Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said it depends on the safety of residents and what the fire does as to what areas are reopened.
“As the damage assessment continues, it’s important for everyone to realize that this is a time when some people will realize they no longer have homes — that they are going to be experiencing considerable losses,” Essick said. “… We urge you to look out for your neighbors, care for your neighbors, and be patient with one another.”
Flames from one of the fires burning as part of the LNU complex entered into the grove at the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve Monday but it was described as low intensity and firefighters were able to prevent any damage to the Colonel Armstrong Tree, Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls said in a video briefing Tuesday.
That tree is the oldest in the grove, estimated to be over 1,400 years old.
As of late Tuesday evening, the LNU complex was 27 percent contained; the SCU complex was 20 percent contained, and the CZU complex was 19 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.
At the CZU complex, which is burning north of Santa Cruz, officials reported good progress in containing the fire. But the area is heavy timber, trees will come down, and it was called still a dangerous situation.
The fire was now at more than 79,600 acres and containment had increased from 17 to 19 percent by Tuesday evening, Cal Fire said. More than 400 homes and other structures have been destroyed.
“Every percent of containment is hours and hours of sweat and blood up on those lines,” Cal Fire Deputy Chief Jonathan Cox said at a news briefing Tuesday evening. There were 24,000 structures threatened throughout the complex, he said.
Of those killed in the fires, the three people who died in Napa County were Mary Hintemeyer, 70, her boyfriend Leo McDermott and his son, Tom McDermott, Hintemeyer’s son told NBC Bay Area.
Hintemeyer drove out to a roadblock, went back for Leo McDermott, who was in a wheelchair, and all three took refuge in what was described as a makeshift fire shelter. It was there that the remains were found, Robert McNeal told the station.
McNeal said that of his mother, “she was one of the most caring people that I’ve ever met,” and he urged people to heed evacuation warnings.
“The message is, get out,” he told the station. “Don’t worry about your stuff. Your family is going to have to deal with the aftermath of you not getting out. And that’s way worse than losing your property.”