California: firefighters begin to turn tide but warn that ‘mega-fire era’ has arrived

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Officials say progress was made against the the LNU Lightning Complex and the CZU Lightning Complex fires

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Firefighters caught a slight break in efforts to contain the barrage of wildfire that has burned more than 1.2m acres across California, displacing tens of thousands amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The dry lightning and winds that forecasters warned could stoke the blazes and spark more were less severe than expected, allowing crews – aided by reinforcements from neighboring states – to make progress in containing the fires. The blazes have killed seven and scorched more than 1,200 homes and other buildings.

“This is indeed a difficult time in California,” said Mark Ghaly, California’s top health official. We knew something like this would come,” he added. “But the reality of it is challenging for so many Californians.”

Ghaly advised residents to heed evacuation orders, acknowledging: “We’re telling many folks who haven’t left their homes for months, who are worried about their exposure to Covid, that it’s safer to leave than to stay.” To those out of the fires’ immediate path but residing in one of the larges swaths of the state that remain blanketed in smoke, his message was to remain indoors, as the cloth face coverings that help prevent the spread of coronavirus do not filter out toxic air.

Although fire crews are making progress, many of those displaced by the fires face an uncertain future. “Overall our hope is to get you back quickly,” said Mark Essick, the sheriff of Sonoma county, where the LNU Complex fire, the most deadly of the conflagrations that have overtaken the Bay Area, continues to burn. Officials are still assessing the damage. “This is a time when some people will realize that they do not have homes,” Essick said at a press conference on Tuesday.

Officials said on Tuesday the LNU Complex fire was 27% contained, having scorched more than 350,000 acres in California’s wine country.

Crews were also making some progress against the SCU Complex fire east of the San Francisco Bay, which, having scorched more than 363,000 acres is the second-largest wildfire in California history, followed by the LNU, which is the third-largest. A third major fire, the CZU complex to the south, was also heeling, thanks to calmer weather and some rain over the weekend, according to officials.

“We are essentially living in a mega-fire era,” said Jake Hess, a Cal Fire unit chief, told reporters on Monday. Large, catastrophic fires “have been outpacing themselves every year”, he said.

Officials warned the danger was far from over. Six people who returned to a restricted area south of San Francisco were surprised by fire and had to be rescued, the San Mateo sheriff said. Looters have been warned they will be arrested and some people have been taken into custody, including a man found with $5,000 in his car, authorities said.

Evacuees tempted to check on their homes should think again, officials said.

“It is highly dangerous in there still,” Jonathan Cox, a Cal Fire deputy chief, of the blaze north of Santa Cruz. “We have bridges that have failed, old wooden bridges that have failed that may not appear failed to people, that they may drive on. It is not safe.”

An estimated 170,000 are under evacuation orders and tens of thousands of homes remain under threat. Some orders were reduced to warnings on Monday.

Elinor Slayer fled her home in the redwood-dotted mountain town of Boulder Creek, north of Santa Cruz, on Tuesday evening, along with her four children, when they started seeing burnt leaves and large pieces of ash.

“Luckily for me, I have a 13-year-old daughter who is very cautious about wildfires. We had bags packed already,” said Slayer, 48. “We hadn’t gotten an evacuation order yet but my daughter said, ‘It’s time to go.’”

The family is counting their blessings that everyone is safe and hoping their home is too. “We don’t know what we’re going to return to,” Slayer said.

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The fires are blamed for at least seven deaths, among them 70-year-old Mary Hintemeyer, her boyfriend, Leo McDermott, and his son, Tom, said Hintemeyer’s son, Robert McNeal, of Winters, California.

McNeal told KPIX-TV he had lost contact with his mother last Tuesday night as the fires sped up. He said his mother had tried to go into town earlier that day but turned back at a roadblock where authorities said if she went through she wouldn’t be allowed back. She returned to get her boyfriend, who was in a wheelchair.

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Authorities found their remains among the ruins on the Napa county property, he said.

“Just get out, don’t wait,” McNeal said. “If you think it’s going to be too much to get your sprinklers on before you get out of there, forget those too. Forget it. Get out. Just get out. It ain’t worth it.”

The huge, simultaneous wildfires advancing across the state, many of which were spawned by a rare bout of dry lightning over the Bay Area, have been feeding off dry vegetation, primed by a historically dry winter and desiccated by a recent heatwave.

Although the California landscape has adapted to survive and even thrive amid wildfires, global heating is fueling more frequent, more extreme blazes, according to Crystal Kolden, a fire scientist at the University of California, Merced. The recent spate of fires is unusual because peak fire season in California usually comes in the fall, when powerful offshore winds stoke huge blazes.

As California continues efforts to contain hundreds of wildfires across the state, neighboring Oregon, Montana, Idaho and Colorado are coping with wildfires. Smoke from the west is forecasted to travel across the country.

In and around the Bay Area, in cities and towns worst affected by fire, schools that had already delayed opening due to the coronavirus pandemic have further delayed classes as fires have forced students and teachers to evacuate. In Santa Cruz, officials wrote to families that school would be suspended through the end of the month or later, “because we have more staff displaced and evacuated than we have substitutes”. In nearby Scotts Valley, the local school superintendent wrote to families that the district had to postpone classes and “pivot and adjust to the latest crisis before us”.

“I am sincerely sorry that this is happening and my heart and prayers go out to all of those affected by this situation,” wrote the superintendent Tanya Krause.