One of the largest fires in its history continued to ravage California on Sunday, driving tens of thousands of people from their homes as thunderstorms raise fears of new fires.
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Several thousand lightning strikes in recent days have triggered fires that cover the region with a thick layer of smoke.
This week, nearly 400,000 acres burned in the western state of the United States, according to Calfire, the California firefighting agency.
“New thunderstorms are expected” Sunday and by Tuesday, Calfire warned on Twitter. “Everyone must stay alert and have an evacuation plan.”
“Dry thunderstorms could trigger new forest fires this weekend”, favored by “the severe drought” affecting California, confirmed the national weather service. “The western United States and the Great Plains are covered with a huge layer of smoke from the current fires, which extends from the Rockies to the west coast.”
Some 2,600 firefighters are fighting the two most important fires, out of the 13,700 mobilized on “the twenty or so big fires”, according to Calfire.
“If you don’t believe in climate change, come to California,” tweeted State Governor Gavin Newsom.
He posted on his account a spectacular photo of huge clouds of smoke rising from the fires, which “is only a small part of the nearly 600 fires we are fighting this week.”
Wineries in the Napa and Sonoma Valley, which were still recovering from fires of previous years, are at risk.
“Most of the firefighters have been around for 72 hours, and everyone is exhausted,” Jim Wood, a local Sonoma Valley politician, told the Los Angeles Times.
“A staggering record”
The two main fireplaces, nicknamed the “SCU Lightning Complex” and the “LNU Lightning Complex”, reduced 268,000 hectares and more than 840 buildings to ashes.
The first had burned 137,000 hectares early Sunday, and the second 131,000 hectares, making it respectively the second and third largest fires in California history. The firefighters controlled 10% and 15% respectively.
According to the Los Angeles Times, more than 485,600 hectares have been devoured by flames in the past month, significantly more than the 104,813 hectares burned over the whole of last year. “A staggering record so early in the fire season,” laments the daily.
For the moment, five deaths are to be attributed to the last fires. Four bodies were found Thursday, including three in a destroyed home in rural Napa County.
But many residents neglected evacuation orders. “At least if we stay here, we know exactly what’s going on,” Napa resident John Newman, 68, told the San Francisco Chronicle, in a lounge chair outside his house. “The family is worried, but it’s a little different when you’re there.”
Natural parks have also been devastated.
Big Basin Redwoods Park, home to some giant sequoias over 500 years old, announced that it had been “badly damaged” and that some of its historic buildings had been destroyed by fire.
Some 119,000 people have been evacuated, many of whom are struggling to find shelter and hesitate to go to the accommodation centers set up by the authorities, fearing to be contaminated by the Covid-19.
In some counties south of San Francisco, evacuees fleeing the flames chose to sleep in campers parked along the Pacific Ocean. The tourists were asked to leave to make way for them.
Other U.S. states, including Oregon, New Mexico and Texas, have sent in firefighters, as well as firefighting and monitoring equipment.
Help is welcome, but insufficient in the face of the scale of the disaster, for Governor Newsom, who called for help from Canada and Australia, because they have, according to him, “the best firefighters in the world”.