Aided by more favorable weather, California officials reported progress Saturday in containing the huge wildfires that surround the Bay Area and have filled its skies with smoke for days.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said it boosted containment levels on all three of the major fire complexes in the North Bay, the South and East Bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains.
“Conditions are looking a lot better,” said Daniel Berlant, a Cal Fire assistant deputy director. “We’re cautiously optimistic.”
Warmer and drier weather forecast for the coming days will make Cal Fire’s work more challenging, but the conditions are not expected to be nearly as bad as they were when the fires ignited during an extreme heat wave about two weeks ago.
The largest of the local fires is the SCU Lightning Complex, which had burned 376,471acres and was 45% contained on Saturday evening — up from 40% the night before.
The SCU complex is the second-largest wildfire in California’s recorded history and has burned a huge, hilly area east of Silicon Valley, tearing through parts of several counties in the South and East Bay and extending toward the western edge of the Central Valley.
“We’re still at the edge of our comfort zone,” said Jake Hess, unit chief at Cal Fire’s Santa Clara Unit, from which the SCU Complex derives its name. “We’re making some significant progress, and we’re still gaining ground every day … (but) we’re not out of the woods.”
Just behind that fire in terms of total acres burned is the double-barreled LNU Lightning Complex, composed of one area burned around Lake Berryessa and Vacaville and a second fire burning in west Sonoma County north of Guerneville. The LNU Complex had burned 373,920 acres and was 55% controlled Saturday evening —only a slight increase in size but a 14 percentage point increase in containment. It is considered the third-largest fire or complex of fires in state history.
Cal Fire was hoping to improve its grip on the LNU Complex’s eastern zone, specifically a stretch between the Calistoga and Middletown areas.
As containment on the LNU Complex improved, life began returning to Guerneville on Saturday after a 10-day shutdown. The western zone of the complex, the Walbridge Fire, did not touch the town, sticking instead to the ridges and nearby forests. But the whole place was evacuated in what is normally the busiest part of the tourist season for businesses, beaches and the meandering Russian River.
Restaurants, art galleries and the classic Five and Dime were open for business on Saturday and chairs and tables for outdoor dining popped up along Main Street. The Safeway parking lot was packed and officials from Sonoma County and state and federal governments were preparing to open an assistance center for fire victims. Most of the services were outdoors in the parking lot of a Bank of America building, to avoid people crowding indoors and possibly spreading the coronavirus.
“We’re making this space work,” said Julie Wyne, a county employee co-managing the center.
The assistance center will be open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. through Friday, Sept. 4, offering a variety of services, mainly helping them navigate bureaucracy. A few charities and nonprofits will also be there.
In the Santa Cruz Mountains and San Mateo County coast, the CZU Lightning Complex has burned 84,338 acres as of Saturday morning and was 33% contained, a 4 percentage point increase from Saturday morning.
In coming days, decreasing winds will help firefighting efforts but hinder clearing smoke from the air, said National Weather Service meteorologist Brayden Murdock.
“It’s not going to hurt, but it’s not going to help,” Murdock said, adding that no precipitation is coming any time soon.
Air quality varied across the Bay Area on Saturday, from good to unhealthy, depending on location, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District reported.
In Marin and Sonoma counties, air quality was largely good. In San Francisco and much of the East Bay, it was moderate. In an area from Vacaville to Woodland and also east of Livermore, it was “unhealthy for sensitive persons.” And in a stretch along the San Mateo County coast, it was unhealthy.
Spare the Air Alerts remained in effect through Sunday, with wood burning prohibited and nonessential driving discouraged.
Many people throughout the region remain under evacuation orders or warnings, but authorities have been gradually downgrading restrictions or lifting them entirely, a process that continued throughout the major fire complexes on Saturday.
Berlant of Cal Fire said the agency was hoping to start sending firefighters home in the coming weeks so they can rest. California is still in the early stages of peak fire season, he noted, as many of the state’s worst blazes have occurred in autumn, when vegetation is at its driest before the rainy season and fast winds blow through from the east.
J.D. Morris, Michael Cabanatuan and Steve Rubenstein are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com Twitter: @thejdmorris, @ctuan, @SteveRubeSF