Nearly 11,000 lightning bolts strike California, igniting hundreds of fires in a state facing multiple crises

Fires sparked by lightning and a blistering heat wave raged across California, stretching resources and sending people out of their homes in the middle of the night.

Besides having the most coronavirus cases nationwide, California faced multiple crises this week — a lightning blitz, a record heat wave, wildfires and power outages. Firefighting crews worked long hours to save communities in the path of the blazes and requested 375 fire engines from out of state to assist in the effort.

This week alone, nearly 11,000 lightning bolts hit the state within 72 hours, igniting hundreds of fires, Cal Fire spokesman Jeremy Rahn said in a news conference. Statewide, there are a total of 367 fires — 26 of them considered major blazes, officials said.

Two giant cluster of blazes — the LNU Lightning Complex and the SCU Lightning Complex fires — are burning in 10 counties.

“This is an incredibly emotional and stressful time for many of us who have endured many fires and natural disasters over the last couple of years,” Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said.

On Wednesday, Gus Valerian woke up to desperate pounding on the door of his Vacaville home in Solano County, about 50 miles northeast of San Francisco. It was about 2 a.m. and a fire department official had come to warn them of the roaring blaze near his family’s 16-acre property. Valerian rounded up his wife, Kersti, and their 3-year-old twins, Lincoln and Emmy, and bolted.

“We just grabbed a bunch of clothes and jumped in the truck, got the cats and dogs and headed off to Oakland,” he told CNN affiliate KGO.

Inmates get N95 masks to help with air quality

The fires in the state have burned more than 320,000 acres and come during a historic and brutal multiday heat wave. About 30 million people across the West are under an excessive heat warning or heat advisory Thursday, CNN meteorologist Michael Guy said.

In Vacaville, one of the hardest-hit cities, inmates at a state prison are getting N95 masks to help with air quality.

The LNU Lightning Complex Fire affecting the city stretches over five counties — Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo, Solano — and has scorched more than 124,000 acres. It’s 0% contained and authorities are evacuating some areas.

Outside Vacaville, Thuy Ngo watched Wednesday as flames consumed the barn on his 30-acre farm property.

“We didn’t think the fire would come down here this fast,” he told CNN. “It’s just heart-wrenching. … It’s just gone.”

Evacuations expected in the region

The second biggest fire in the state — the SCU Lightning Complex Fire — has burned 102,000 acres. By early Thursday, it was 5% contained and had affected Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties.

A third fire, dubbed the CZU August Lightning Complex, has grown to 25,000 acres in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties. It was 0% contained by early Thursday.

With the heat wave adding to the fires’ ferocity and speed, evacuations are underway throughout the region, but officials don’t have a clear number on how many people have been told to leave their homes. The priorities remain the safety of firefighters and the public, evacuation planning and structure and infrastructure protection, said Cal Fire Operations Chief Chris Waters.

Temperatures have hovered above 100 degrees in some parts this week. On Thursday, they are expected to be in the upper 80s into low 90s.

“The low humidity levels and gusty winds are allowing the fire to spread rapidly,” CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam said.

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Power outages hit the state

Power outages are also an issue as the California power grid struggles to keep up with demand.

The rolling blackouts were implemented over the weekend when an intense heat wave causes record temperatures across the state, including a high of 130 degrees in Death Valley on Sunday.

Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency this week to deploy resources to combat fires burning across the state exacerbated by the heat wave and high winds. He also demanded an investigation into the power outages.

“These blackouts, which occurred without warning or enough time for preparation, are unacceptable and unbefitting of the nation’s largest and most innovative state,” Newsom wrote in a letter to the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Energy Commission.

Experts have warned that wildfires fueled by the climate crisis will be the new normal in California. Warm-season days in the state have increased by 2.5 degrees since the early 1970s, according to a study published last year in the journal Earth’s Future.

“The clearest link between California wildfire and anthropogenic climate change thus far has been via warming-driven increases in atmospheric aridity, which works to dry fuels and promote summer forest fire,” the report said. “It is well established that warming promotes wildfire throughout the western US, particularly in forested regions, by enhancing atmospheric moisture demand and reducing summer soil moisture as snowpack declines.”

Park Williams, the study’s lead author and a professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, said human-caused warming of the planet has caused the vapor pressure deficit to increase by 10% since the late 1800s, meaning that more evaporation is occurring. By 2060, he expects that effect to double.

“This is important because we have already seen a large change in California wildfire activity from the first 10%. Increasing the evaporation has exponential effects on wildfires, so the next 10% increase is likely to have even more potent effects,” he told CNN last year.

Dozens of fires burning nationwide

While the West is suffering through record-breaking heat, wildfires are ravaging many areas, and red-flag warnings have been issued from the Northwest into the Rockies.

There were at least 77 large complexes of wildfires burning in 15 states nationwide this week — almost a third of them in California, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

The fires have burned at least 649,054 acres in the 14 states where fires are still spreading, it said. Some of the states with multiple fires include Alaska with seven, Arizona with 11 and Colorado with five.

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