California fire officials are cautiously optimistic after dodging a major lightning storm, but they are pleading with residents to stay out of evacuation zones and prepare for days away from home as three massive San Francisco Bay Area wildfires rage on, suffocating the region with smoky air.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said this week will be critical as more than 14,000 firefighters battle 17 major fire complexes, largely in Northern California where wildfires have surrounded the city of San Francisco on three sides, singeing coastal redwoods that have never been burned. The wildfires, all caused by lightning, have been burning for a week.
“We are dealing with different climate conditions that are precipitating in fires the likes we haven’t seen in modern recorded history,” he said Monday.
A warning about dry lightning and gusty winds that could have sparked more fires was lifted for the San Francisco Bay Area on Monday morning, a huge relief to fire commanders who said the weather was aiding their efforts as firefighters pour in from out of state. Temperatures are expected to be hot again this week.
But officials warned the danger was far from over and called the fires complex and large. They admonished residents to stay out of evacuated areas and warned looters they’ll be arrested if caught.
“It is highly dangerous in there still,” said Jonathan Cox, a deputy fire chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, of the blaze north of Santa Cruz. “We have bridges that have failed, old wooden bridges that have failed that may not appear failed” to drivers.
Not knowing whether her home is still standing is the hardest part right now, says Barbara Brandt, a Boulder Creek resident who fled the Santa Cruz area fire Tuesday night.
“The last few days have been a roller coaster,” she said. “You get conflicting reports. You don’t know what your life is going to be like. We don’t know when we can go back, but we know it’s not going to be for a long time.”
When Brandt evacuated with her 94-year-old father, they figured the order was just a precaution. It was smoky, but not the massive complex of fires it is now. Her cats weren’t inside so she left without them, thinking they’d be back soon.
She went back Wednesday to put her cats in the house and feed her chickens. On Thursday, she returned yet again — this time to grab the cats.
North of San Francisco in wine country, Tim Ireland, 48, and Sherri Johnston, 47, were heading back to their destroyed Healdsburg home in Sonoma County to look for one of their dogs. The dog refused to get into the car when they fled.
“We only got out with a car full of clothes, firearms, safe, all our electronic devices, one dog, and two cats,” he said.
California has had more than 13,000 lightning strikes since Aug. 15, sparking more than 600 wildfires statewide that have burned more than 1.2 million acres, or 1,875 square miles (4,856 square kilometers), said Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director with Cal Fire.
The burn area is more than the size of Rhode Island and not quite the size of Delaware.
More than 1,200 buildings have been destroyed although the number is bound to increase as residents are allowed back into neighborhoods and inspectors get a better look at the destruction.
A fifth body was found over the weekend from that wildfire, bringing the death count from the fires to seven. Also, Santa Cruz authorities announced Sunday that the body of a 70-year-old man was found in a remote area called Last Chance. Police had to use a helicopter to reach the remote area of roughly 40 homes at the end of a windy, steep dirt road north of the city of Santa Cruz.
Among the victims was 70-year-old Mary Hintemeyer, of Winters, California, her boyfriend Leo McDermott, and his son, Tom, said Hintemeyer’s son, Robert McNeal.
McNeal told KPIX-TV that he lost contact with his mother Tuesday night as the fires picked up speed. He said his mother had tried to go into town earlier that day but turned back at a roadblock where authorities said if she went through she wouldn’t be allowed back. She returned home to get her boyfriend, who was in a wheelchair.
Authorities found their remains among the ruins on the Napa County property Wednesday, he said.
“Just get out, don’t wait,” McNeal told the TV station, urging people to follow evacuation orders. “If you think it’s going to be too much to get your sprinklers on before you get out of there, forget those too. Forget it. Get out. Just get out. It ain’t worth it.”
A utility worker found unresponsive in his vehicle in Solano County while assisting fire crews also died last week, but authorities have not yet released a cause of death.
Berlant, with Cal Fire, said about 170,000 people remain evacuated after about 50,000 were allowed back into their homes starting Sunday.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Chris Clark said three people were arrested Sunday night from evacuated areas, two on outstanding warrants and one woman “seen walking around with a backpack,” who was in a closed area and was not a local.
The governor on Monday called the reports of looting “repugnant” and applauded prosecutors for taking a tough stance.
The fire in wine country north of San Francisco and another southeast of the city burning in seven counties have grown within a week to be two of the three largest fires in state history, each scorching about 550 square miles (1,425 square kilometers).
The wine country fire has been the most deadly and destructive blaze, accounting for five deaths and destroying 871 homes and other buildings.