As California wildfires rage, new round of lightning-ignited blazes is forecast into Monday

Source: By Andrew Freedman and Hannah Knowles, Washington Post • Posted: Sunday, August 23, 2020

Another dry lightning event could spark dozens of new fires, further stretching state resources

A burned out vehicle is left in front of a fire- ravaged residence as smoke from the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire fills the sky Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020, in Boulder Creek, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
A burned out vehicle is left in front of a fire- ravaged residence as smoke from the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire fills the sky Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020, in Boulder Creek, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Zachary Handl pleaded with law enforcement for just a half-hour to go get his belongings — his “show” guitar, the custom-tailored suit, his late grandmother’s sketches. He had been away, camping.

The official blocking the road to Ben Lomond was firm, though, Handl said. The fire was too close. No one was getting in.

On Sunday, the 36-year-old had heard that his neighborhood was intact. But he was watching the weather.

It’s kind of a waiting game right now,” he said. “Because even — whether or not my house or either of my parents’ houses are still there … with this next round of thunderstorms … they might not be.”

Californians are bracing for more lightning that could spark ferocious new blazes, as wildfires nearing record size continue to burn largely uncontained. In little more than a week, storms have set off hundreds of fires and given rise to the second- and third-largest blazes in California’s history. More than 1.1 million acres have burned since Aug. 15, according to the state’s firefighting agency, Cal Fire, making the fires’ footprint larger than Rhode Island.

The acreage burned in just nine days is unprecedented in a “single fire siege,” said Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynnette Round. The fires have prompted the evacuation of more than 100,000 people and fouled the air quality across California and as far downwind as the Midwest.

Thunderstorms are anticipated Sunday and Monday as moisture from what was once Hurricane Genevieve streams northeastward, where it will encounter intense August heat over central and northern California. The storms are expected to produce lightning strikes but little rain, which, given the extremely dry vegetation at the tail end of the summer dry season, is capable of touching off new fires.

Nick Nauslar, a meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, which coordinates firefighting efforts nationwide, tweeted early Sunday morning that if numerous storms form, they could ignite “hundreds of new fires.” With fire crews already stretched thin and Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) appealing for help from other states as well as Canada and Australia, this could overwhelm the more than 13,000 firefighters currently on duty.

Red Flag warnings are in effect for the entire San Francisco Bay area northward to Sacramento. These warnings stretch all the way to the Oregon border, including some areas that have not been hit hard by the latest blazes.

In a typical entire wildfire season, California sees a little more than 300,000 acres burned.

  • The LNU Complex Fire had burned 341,243 acres, mainly in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties, destroying 845 structures and killing 4. The fire was just 17 percent contained, and ranks as the second-largest blaze in state history.
  • As of Sunday morning, the SCU Complex Fire was 339,968 acres, having destroyed five structures and threatening 20,000 others. It was just 10 percent contained. The fire is the third-largest in California history and is burning in Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties.
  • Nine of the 10 largest California wildfires have occurred since 2003, but many of them reached their size more gradually than the current blazes, which spread with a speed and ferocity that even veteran firefighters had not witnessed.

Handl says he watched the thunderstorms last week while camping and thought they were “beautiful.” Then, he heard about the fires. He cut his trip short and drove back to Ben Lomond, a community of roughly 7,000 about 10 miles north of Santa Cruz.

The roads down from Tahoe were clogged with evacuees from the Vacaville area, he said. He inched forward for hours, passing people hosing off their roofs and packing their cars as ash fell from the sky. Turned away from his place in Ben Lomond, he said, he stayed at first with friends in Santa Cruz, but the smoke there was so oppressive that he and his hosts both decided to leave town.

Handl says that “there’s no point in getting frustrated” about not being able to retrieve his most precious belongings. He does not want to endanger himself and firefighters.

He is still angry, however, about the fire seasons that ravage California year after year. He knows the latest blazes stem from a “crazy weather event” — a “siege” of lightning, officials have said — but he wants more resources poured into firefighting, fire prevention and the climate change linked to wildfires’ growing threat.

“This has been like an annual event. This fire season across the state,” he said. “We’ve had an opportunity to see what’s coming.”

The two wildfires currently burning in northern California are now the second and third largest fires in state history.

A competing threat is unique to 2020, however: the novel coronavirus. The pandemic has been complicating relief efforts and intensifying evacuees’ anxiety, sending elderly and immunocompromised people into crowded spaces.

Nancy Bell and her husband, Joseph Bell, have been staying at an evacuation center set up at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, where people sleep in tents spaced apart to help maintain social distancing. Each time the Bells enter the building, someone takes their temperatures and makes sure they use hand sanitizer.

Still, “it’s a bunch of people, indoors, and who knows who has it,” said the 75-year-old Joseph. He and Nancy, 77, are retirees especially vulnerable to the virus because of their age.

Even if they could find an open room in Santa Cruz’s now-packed hotels and motels, the Bells could not spare the money, they say. They have about $80 in cash.

Their situation brightened Sunday: A social worker came by wanting to get elderly people out of the makeshift shelter, they said. The Bells say they are in the process of getting a free room to themselves at a hotel in San Francisco.

But the threat of more fires looms, and they worry about the weather. Their home in Boulder Creek has apparently been spared, they say — but they know that could change in an instant.

Extreme heat, lightning and long-term, human-caused climate change

Lightning forks over the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge as a storm passes over Oakland on Aug. 16.
Lightning forks over the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge as a storm passes over Oakland on Aug. 16. (Noah Berger/AP)

California has seen a significant uptick in large-wildfire activity because of a combination of climate change, land-use practices and other factors. Large fires have also increased across other parts of the West, which climate studies tie to human-caused climate change that alters the timing of precipitation, makes summers hotter and vegetation drier, and leads to more days with extreme weather that enables fires to spread rapidly.

Studies show that climate change is lengthening the fire season and leading to larger blazes than would otherwise occur. The 2018 National Climate Assessment, published by the Trump administration, projected that those trends are likely to continue for several decades.

The immediate trigger of most of the more than two dozen large fires burning in the Bay Area was an unusual August thunderstorm outbreak, which lighted up the night skies above San Francisco on Sunday and Monday and moved inland, where lightning discharges struck trees and grass at a time of year when vegetation is at its driest.

Between midnight Saturday and midnight Wednesday, there were 20,203 cloud-to-ground strikes in California, according to Chris Vagasky of the company Vaisala, which operates the National Lightning Detection Network. The total number of lightning discharges, which includes lightning that jumped from cloud to cloud without hitting the ground, was equivalent to 11 percent of California’s average annual lightning activity, he said in a Twitter message.

According to the National Weather Service forecast office in San Francisco, the threat for new thunderstorms is highest from Sunday afternoon local time through Monday morning.

In addition to igniting new fires, these storms could cause “gusty, erratic winds which may create dangerous and unpredictable fire behavior on the current wildfires,” the Weather Service wrote.

A long-lasting and intense heat wave has also played a key role in these blazes. Multiple monthly heat records have been set in the past 10 days, including in Death Valley, Calif., where one of the hottest temperatures on Earth, a high of 130 degrees on Sunday, was recorded.