Hundreds of active fires, including more than 20 major ones largely sparked by a blitz of lightning in recent days, already have burned around 1 million acres, according to Cal Fire officials.
Firefighters are worried about forecasts that say dry thunderstorms — featuring lightning but little rain — could spark more fires and spread existing ones Sunday through Tuesday.
“What we’re worried about is what happens after Sunday, if we do get more lightning strikes and fires,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Lucas Spelman said Saturday. “What’s it going to mean for firefighters who could be on the lines for two, three weeks, even a month?
“Because not only will they have been dealing every day with the heat, smoke and flames, but also physical exhaustion. Mental exhaustion, too.”
A day after Gov. Gavin Newsom said almost every firefighting resource in California was battling the blazes, President Donald Trump approved a major disaster declaration on Saturday that will release federal aid to supplement recovery efforts in areas affected by the wildfires.
Those areas include Lake, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Solano, Sonoma, and Yolo counties, according to a White House statement.
One of the reasons for a resource shortage: Fewer prison inmates than usual are helping, because of early releases during the Covid-19 pandemic.
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‘It’s the unknown that hurts,’ evacuee says
In the Lake Berryessa area of Napa County, the LNU fire has turned neighborhoods into piles of ash and debris. At least 560 structures have been destroyed and 125 have been damaged by the wildfire that stretches across five counties, said Sean Kavanaugh, incident commander with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Charred frames of cars and trucks with melted tires rested on driveways throughout a burned-out neighborhood Saturday, with only a few houses still standing, a CNN crew saw.
Five deer were about the only things stirring. They drank from the only potable thing in sight: A bowl of water left outside the rubble of what used to be a house.
Nearly 41,000 residents in Sonoma County were under evacuation warnings or orders Saturday, officials said.
“I left with my clothes … two guitars and a dog,” evacuee Robert Patterson told KGO.
Another evacuee, Michael Martyn, told the station that the shelter has been nice, but “it’s the unknown that hurts.”
“It’s going to be bad … when you really get down to the nitty gritty and find out the results of this fire, it’s going to be devastating, devastating,” Martyn told KGO.
California wildfires have caused more deaths and destruction so far this year than in all of 2019. Last year, wildfires charred a total of 260,000 acres and killed three people, according to Cal Fire.
Fires blanket parts of the West with smoke
Fires in California and elsewhere in the West are making for poor air quality, blanketing parts of them and the Great Plains with smoke.
The National Weather Service has issued air quality alerts for parts of at least six states: California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Colorado and New Mexico. These alerts warn of moderate to heavy smoke, and advise people — especially those with heart disease or respiratory illnesses — to consider staying indoors and limiting outdoor activity.
Several global air quality monitoring websites show levels in California’s Bay Area and Central Valley recently have been worse than anywhere else, including locations generally regarded as having the poorest air quality, like India and eastern China.
More lightning in the forecast
Weather conditions over the next few days could worsen the spread of fires in California and other Western states.
Lightning, gusty winds and low humidity could spark new fires and spread existing ones, generally Sunday through Tuesday, National Weather Service forecasters said.
Those concerns are reflected in two kinds of alerts from the weather service:
Those warnings say conditions likely to start or spread fires will be imminent during the warning period.
CNN’s Paul Vercammen reported from Napa County, and Jason Hanna and Faith Karimi wrote from Atlanta. Steve Almasy, Melissa Alonso, Stella Chan, Sarah Moon, Cheri Mossburg, Jon Passantino and Anna-Maja Rappard contributed.