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‘Living in a mega-fire era’: Dry lightning could bring new threat as 14,000 firefighters battle more than 625 wildfires in California – USA TODAY

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Wildfires have spread across Napa and Sonoma counties in California following a series of lightning strikes that hit the area earlier this week.

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Fire officials say they are preparing for a “marathon” to suppress the wildfires that are raging across California – including two of the largest in state history. That’s even after a quieter-than-expected Monday.

“We are essentially living in a mega-fire era,” said Jake Hess, a Cal Fire unit chief for Santa Clara. “We have folks that have been working for Cal Fire for the last five years and this is all they understand is mega fires since they started. These significant incidents have been outpacing themselves every year.”

The weather going into Tuesday was forecast to be warm and dry, with highs in the low 90s in the Bay Area, and erratic winds up to 65 mph. There was more looming danger as thunderstorms in the early morning then again in the afternoon could bring lightning with limited rainfall that could spark new fires.

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On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom echoed fire officials, describing the week ahead as critical as more than 14,000 firefighters battle more than 625 wildfires across the Golden State.

“We’re deploying every resource we have at our disposal,” he said.

At least seven people have died from the fires, Newsom said, including at least five from the LNU complex.

Cal Fire assistant deputy director Daniel Berlant said about 170,000 people remain evacuated, though about 50,000 were allowed back into their homes starting Sunday. Tens of thousands of homes remain threatened, too. 

Officials warned that all of the state’s residents should still be ready and on high alert as weather forecasts signaled the looming threat of more lightning with hot temperatures and unpredictable winds. 

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Air quality is becoming an increasing issue, too. Much of the Central Valley is under an air quality alert from the National Weather Service. The concentration of “the tiny particles (PM2.5) in the Bay Area is roughly five times the daily average limit set by the EPA,” said Coty Jen, assistant professor at the Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies at Carnegie Mellon University.

“Even healthy people are reporting headaches, bloody noses, etc., during this current smoke event,” Jen said.

Here’s what we know Tuesday:

Three of California’s largest fires continue to burn around San Francisco

Since thousands of lightning strikes began hitting the state on Aug. 15, firefighters have responded to more than 600 wildfires, according to the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

Two fire complexes, the LNU Lightning Complex to the north and SCU Lightning Complex to the southeast, have grown to be the second and third largest wildfires in California history.

Three fires are burning on all sides of the Bay Area: the LNU Lightning Complex is burning 352,000 acres and was 27% contained; the SCU Lightning Complex has burned 360,055 acres Monday night with 15% containment; and the CZU Lightning Complex to the south has burned 78,000 and was 17% contained.

The LNU Lightning Complex has been the most deadly and damaging in Northern California, having destroyed hundreds of homes and killed at least five people.

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However, late Monday it was surpassed in acreage burned by the SCU fire, which has destroyed 12 minor structures and threatened more than 20,000.

Across California, more than 13,000 lighting strikes have been recorded since Aug. 15, igniting hundreds of blazes. More than 14,000 firefighters, 2,400 engines and 95 aircraft are combating the fires. In total, more than 1,200 buildings have been destroyed, Berlant said.

In firefighters’ “best day yet,” helicopters dropped 200,000 gallons of water on the CZU Lightning Complex, Cal Fire operations chief Mark Brunton said. 

The National Weather Service office in San Francisco said some air flow was expected to clear out smoke along the coast Tuesday, though smoky and hazy conditions were still expected.

Other large fires included the Butte/Tehama/Glenn Lightning Complex west of Red Bluff and the River Fire south of Salinas, both of which had burned nearly 50,000 acres each.

In Southern California, several other fires were burning around the Los Angeles area but were closer to being contained.

Don’t go into evacuated areas: Fire officials say it’s still ‘highly dangerous’

State officials are warning that the danger is far from over around wildfires and admonishing residents for failing to stay out of evacuated areas.

Six people who returned to a restricted area south of San Francisco to check on their properties were surprised by fire and had to be rescued, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office said.

Looters have been warned they’ll be arrested if caught.

“It is highly dangerous in there still,” said Jonathan Cox, a deputy fire chief for Cal Fire, referring to 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.” 

As tens of thousands have been forced from their homes, looters have taken advantage of the situation, local authorities have warned. In one case, a looter burglarized a California firefighter’s marked vehicle, Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart said Sunday.

Redwoods, some 2,000 years old, survive flames at Big Basin state park

When a massive wildfire swept through California’s oldest state park last week, it was feared many trees in a grove of old-growth redwoods, some of them 2,000 years old and among the tallest living things on Earth, may finally have succumbed.

The historic headquarters at Big Basin Redwoods State Park is gone, as are many small buildings and campground infrastructure that went up in flames as fire swept through the park about 45 miles south of San Francisco.

But the forest is not gone, said Laura McLendon, conservation director for the Sempervirens Fund, an environmental group dedicated to the protection of redwoods and their habitats.

“It will regrow. Every old growth redwood I’ve ever seen, in Big Basin and other parks, has fire scars on them. They’ve been through multiple fires, possibly worse than this.”

Further south, the Dolan Fire scorched through the Ventana Wildlife Preserve where dozens of free-flying California condors live, chewing up the vegetation and leaving little behind. 

The Ventana Wildlife Society (VWS) has fought for decades to bring back the endangered native California vulture.

Although the wildfire has the potential to set recovery back for the California condor by years, it could also be good for the birds, said VWS Executive Director Kelly Sorenson. 

“We have good reason to be hopeful,” he said.

How to stay safe from wildfire smoke

Wildfire smoke can irritate your eyes, nose, throat and lungs, make it hard to breathe and make you cough or wheeze, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

To reduce exposure to smoke, the CDC recommends choosing a room that can be closed off to outside air. Place a portable air cleaner or filter in the room if possible, the CDC says, and wear a respirator to filter out smoke. 

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While most cloth or surgical masks will help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, they don’t keep people safe from harmful particles in smoke. A mask designed to filter fine particulate matter, like an N-95, is best, though supplies are scarce because of the pandemic.

Kottlowski said the more layers, the better, if you don’t have access to a respirator. Some face coverings allow you to put an additional filter in to protect you from smoke particles, he said. 

An air conditioning unit with high efficiency filters can capture fine particles from smoke, and setting the system to recirculate mode can prevent outside air from coming in. Also, avoid burning candles and frying or broiling meat, the CDC says.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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