Susan Miller, USA TODAY
Published 10:42 a.m. ET Aug. 23, 2020 | Updated 6:08 a.m. ET Aug. 24, 2020
The helicopter rescue team was able to pull both men out safely.
Californians braced Sunday for a troubling shift in the weather that was expected to bring unpredictable winds, more sizzling temperatures and potential lightning strikes that could ignite new wildfires across an already ravaged state.
Firefighters have been battling more than 600 blazes – sparked by a staggering 12,000 lightning strikes – for a week. About 1.2 million acres of land has been torched. Most of the damage was caused by three clusters of fire “complexes” ripping through 1,175 square miles of forest and rural areas in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The fires have burned about 1,000 homes and other structures, forced tens of thousands to flee, killed six people, blanketed communities with a pall of dangerous smoke and haze, and left residents on edge.
“Tuesday night, when I went to bed, I had a beautiful home on a beautiful ranch,” said Hank Hanson, 81, of Vacaville. “By Wednesday night, I have nothing but a bunch of ashes.”
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The National Weather Service issued a “red flag” warning through Monday afternoon for the Bay Area and the central coast, meaning extreme fire conditions, including high temperatures, low humidity and wind gusts up to 65 mph, “may result in dangerous and unpredictable fire behavior.”
There was the potential for scattered “dry” thunderstorms over much of Northern California, the weather service said, and lightning could spark new blazes.
Mark Brunton, a battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), said the winds can blow a fire in any direction, increasing the peril. “There’s a lot of potential for things to really go crazy out there,” he said.
Cal Fire unit chief Shana Jones urged residents Sunday to take the red flag warnings seriously. “What this means, is that any lightning that comes through … it’s going to likely result in additional fires. We do have a plan in order to immediately attack those fires, but it’s going to take some work.
“I can’t stress enough the importance of being prepared to leave,” Jones said.
Two blazes ballooned into the second- and third-largest in the state’s history, according to Cal Fire. Among the casualties of the fires: ancient redwood trees at California’s oldest state park, Big Basin Redwoods, and the park’s headquarters and campgrounds.
A sixth fatality was reported Sunday night in Santa Cruz County, where the local sheriff’s office confirmed the death of a 70-year-old man in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.
Fire crews made small progress over the weekend, and some evacuation orders were lifted. But the ominous weather reports had officials warning residents new orders could be coming.
“There’s not a feeling of pure optimism, but a feeling of resolve, a feeling of we have resources backing us up,” Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Saturday that the White House granted the state’s request for a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration – despite President Donald Trump publicly chiding California over the wildfires last week.
About 14,000 firefighters man the lines, according to Cal Fire, and crews have been working around the clock. Jones said reinforcements have been streaming in. “I’m pleased to report more resources have been arriving to help fight our fires,” Jones said. “The LNU Complex remains the No. 1 priority for immediate resources as they become available from other incidents that were in California and for other resources outside the state.”
Despite the assistance, “we are definitely far from getting these fires handled. We’re not out of the woods by far,” Jones said.
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The Sonoma County sheriff’s office released dramatic video of a helicopter rescue Friday night of two firefighters trapped on a ridge line at Point Reyes National Seashore. They were pulled to safety as flames raced.
“Had it not been for that helicopter, those firefighters would certainly have perished,” Sheriff Mark Essick said.
Of the two biggest blazes, the SCU Lightning Complex Fire was 10% contained Sunday; the LNU Lightning Complex Fire was 17% contained.
Contributing: Joel Shannon and Grace Hauck, USA TODAY; Scott Linesburgh, The Stockton (Calif.) Record; Joe Szydlowski, The Californian (Salinas, Calif.); The Associated Press
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