Massive wildfires continued to rage Monday on all sides of the San Francisco Bay area, but the threat of lightning igniting more appeared to subside as firefighters battled the flames.
Three vast blazes are scorching Northern California, and more than 650 wildfires, most sparked by lightning, have burned more than 1.4 million acres across the state in August.
However, firefighters received some help Monday from the weather as humidity rose and the lightning was kept at bay overnight. “Mother Nature’s helped us quite a bit,” said Billy See, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) incident commander for a complex of fires burning south of San Francisco.
Red flag warnings in place for most of Northern California were canceled in parts of the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento on Monday. The warnings remained for areas up through the Oregon border and east toward Nevada.
At least seven people have died from the fires, including the first victim of the CZU Lightning Complex fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains, south of San Francisco, who was found dead Sunday.
Nearly a quarter-million people are under evacuation orders and warnings as weather forecasts signaled the looming threat of more lightning with hot temperatures and unpredictable winds.
Here’s what we know on Monday:
LNU Lightning Complex, SCU Lightning Complex, CZU Lightning Complex burning area around San Francisco
On all sides of the San Francisco Bay Area, three of the largest fires in California are burning: the LNU Lightning Complex to the north has burned 350,030 acres and was 22% contained; the SCU Lightning Complex to the southeast has burned 347,196 acres and was 10% contained; and the CZU Lightning Complex to the south has burned 78,000 and was 13% contained.
A lightning complex is a group of fires started by lightning strikes.
California fires:This is how a lightning storm can start a wildfire
According to Cal Fire, the LNU Lightning Complex in California’s wine country is expected to grow, but firefighters were optimistic they could get the blaze under control Monday.
“We had a really good day yesterday and hoping for an even better day today,” Cal Fire chief Chris Waters told reporters Monday.
With more than 1,000 structures destroyed or damaged, and at least five fatalities confirmed since the fire started burning last Monday, the LNU Lightning Complex has been the most deadly and destructive in Northern California.
“The size and complexity in this fire is not one that we’ve seen in times past,” Cal Fire unit chief Shana Jones said.
The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported that the fire gained less than 3,000 acres overnight and the expected lightning storms did not materialize.
“That’s a pretty substantial victory last night, considering all things,” Cal Fire spokesman Jay Tracy told the newspaper.
The SCU Lightning Complex in the Santa Clara area “merged into two major fires and are broken into three zones,” Cal Fire says.
With both the LNU and SCU complexes burning more than 500 square miles, the fires have become two of the three largest fires in state history.
In the CZU Lightning Complex, the body of a 70-year-old man was discovered Sunday in a remote area called Last Chance. About 77,000 people have been evacuated from the area of CZU complex, and more than 200 buildings have been destroyed, Cal Fire says.
“This is one of the darkest periods we’ve been in with this fire,” Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Chris Clark said.
Across California, more than 13,000 lighting strikes have been recorded since Aug. 15, igniting hundreds of blazes. More than 14,0000 firefighters, 2,400 engines and 95 aircraft are combating the fires. In total, more than 1,200 buildings have been destroyed, Cal Fire assistant deputy director Daniel Berlant said.
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 fires are burning around the Los Angeles area, including an 11-day-old blaze that held steady at just under 50 square miles.
Firefighters avoid the worst overnight; red flag warnings still remain in Northern California
Most of the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento had red flag warnings lifted by mid-morning Monday, though they were still in effect for much of Northern California.
The warnings indicate “critical fire weather conditions” as more dry conditions, low winds and lightning strikes storms threaten the state.
“Thunderstorms are still predicted throughout the day, which cause erratic winds, extreme fire behavior within the existing fires, and has the potential for new fire starts,” Cal Fire said in its advisory on the LNU Lightning Complex.
The red flag warnings that remain are in effect through Monday night.
Mark Brunton, a battalion chief for Cal Fire, said firefighters were prepared for more flames but not sure what to expect. “There’s a lot of potential for things to really go crazy out there,” he said.
Overnight, the worst of the forecast lightning appeared to largely spare the area. While the three fire complexes grew some, firefighters were able to make progress toward containing them.
Reports of ‘sickening’ looting of fire victims, including a firefighter
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.
Brunton called the incident “sickening” and said the firefighter’s wallet was stolen and his bank account was “drained” while he was at work directing firefighting crews in the area.
Hart said his department has made eight arrests related to looting so far. Some of the looters have been from outside the area, he said. Others are neighbors. Looters have taken personal possessions inside homes and guns, for example. Hart added a story he heard about a group trying to take an outdoor heating system.
“I have no empathy, I have no patience for somebody who is going to come into our community and steal from people who have been who have been evacuated and victimized and traumatized,” Hart said.
Air quality worsens in north, central California
With so many fires burning throughout the state, unhealthy air full of smoke continues to blanket the areas around the blazes and south in Central California.
The National Weather Service issued air quality alerts throughout much of the Bay Area and central California “until fires are extinguished.”
“Because of the number of fires we have in California, the smoke is just a lot more than normal,” said Dan Kottlowski, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather. “As long as the fires are burning, you’re going to keep seeing smoke in these areas.”
Kottlowski said much of the smoke gets caught in Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, and the air flow often remains stagnant during this time of year. Warm weather can also create temperature inversions that trap the particulate matter in the lower atmosphere, worsening air quality over time, Kottlowski added.
The weather service’s office for the San Joaquin Valley in Hanford warned residents to “stay indoors if possible” and to avoid prolonged outdoor activity. Smoke was forecast to move north Monday, the office said.
Air quality index maps showed levels of fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, in the air in parts of northern and central California as among the worst levels in the world.
“Exposure to particle pollution can cause serious health problems, aggravate lung disease, cause asthma attacks and acute bronchitis, and increase risk of respiratory infection,” the weather service says.
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.
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: Jordan Culver, USA TODAY; Joe Jacquez, Ventura County Star; The Associated Press