An unwelcome change in the weather, with higher winds, temperatures and lightning that threatens to spark new wildfires was coming Sunday to parched Northern California, where firefighters have for nearly a week battled three huge “complexes” of fires that have destroyed hundreds of homes and forced tens of thousands to flee.
Firefighters made slow but hopeful progress in battling the blazes on Saturday, aided by good weather but hampered by smoky skies that grounded water-dropping aircraft for some of the day. Reinforcements arrived to bolster overwhelmed crews, and evacuation orders were lifted in some areas.
But the changing weather brought fears of new fires overnight and warnings from state and local officials for residents in threatened areas to prepare to flee at any moment.
“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.
Since Aug. 15, state fire officials said more than 12,000 lightning strikes across the state have ignited more than 500 wildfires. Of those, about two dozen major fires were attracting most of the state’s resources. Most of the damage was caused by three clusters of fire “complexes” that were ravaging forest and rural areas in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. They have burned 1,120 square miles (2,900 square kilometers).
Among the casualties were ancient redwood trees at California’s oldest state park, Big Basin Redwoods, plus the park’s headquarters and campgrounds. Smoke from the fires made the region’s air quality dangerous, forcing people to stay inside.
Overall, the fires have killed five people, torched nearly 700 homes and other structures and forced tens of thousands from their houses.
“Tuesday night when I went to bed I had a beautiful home on a beautiful ranch,” said 81-year-old Hank Hanson of Vacaville. “By Wednesday night, I have nothing but a bunch of ashes.”
The changing weather brought good news for some communities, including Boulder Creek, an old logging community of about 5,000 people in the Santa Cruz mountains. Fire officials said they expected the blaze to reach the community, but they took advantage of recent good weather to try to “herd” flames around the town.
The storms predicted for Sunday were expected to aid those efforts by changing the direction of the wind.
“As bad as that weather prediction is overall for certain parts of this fire, it actually is going to help us move it away from those certain communities,” said Chief Mark Brunton, a battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the state’s firefighting agency.
Responding to the emergency, President Donald Trump issued on Saturday a major disaster declaration to provide federal assistance. Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement that the declaration will also help people in counties affected by the fires with crisis counseling, housing and other social services.
Fire officials, meanwhile, struggled to get enough resources to fight the two largest cluster of fires around the San Francisco Bay area that had grown to become the second-largest and third-largest fires in state history by size.
The fire burning in California’s wine country, north of the San Francisco Bay, had only 1,400 firefighters assigned to battle the blaze. By comparison, the state had 5,000 firefighters assigned to the Mendocino Complex in 2018, which still holds the record as the largest fire in state history — for now.
“All of our resources remain stretched to capacity that we have not seen in recent history,” said Shana Jones, the chief for CalFire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit.
Underscoring the danger the fires pose for firefighters, the Sonoma County sheriff’s office released dramatic video of the helicopter rescue Friday night of two firefighters trapped on a ridge line at Point Reyes National Seashore. They were hoisted to safety as flames advanced.
“Had it not been for that helicopter, those firefighters would certainly have perished,” Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said.