California fires spread, fouling air and spurring evacuations

An aircraft drops fire retardant on a ridge during the Walbridge fire, part of the larger LNU Lightning Complex fire, as flames continue to spread in Healdsburg, California on August 20, 2020
An aircraft drops fire retardant on a ridge during the Walbridge fire, part of the larger LNU Lightning Complex fire, as flames continue to spread in Healdsburg, California on August 20, 2020 JOSH EDELSON AFP
3 min

Los Angeles (AFP)

Thick smoke blanketed large areas of central and northern California on Friday as more people fled some of the biggest fires in the state’s history which have raged largely uncontrolled through the week.

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The largest group of fires, dubbed the LNU Lightning Complex, had scorched nearly 220,000 acres (89,000 hectares) and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents.

By midday, the fire which erupted on Monday was just seven percent contained.

Some of the fires in that complex — described as the ninth largest in the state’s history — threatened wineries in the famed Napa and Sonoma regions which are still reeling from similar deadly blazes in recent years.

Officials said five deaths have been linked to the fires, which were ignited in the past several days by more than 12,000 lightning strikes.

Four bodies were recovered on Thursday, including three from a burned house in a rural area of Napa County.

Fire officials said the lightning strikes had ignited 560 fires in the past week, 20 of which are considered major.

Some 119,000 people have been evacuated, with many struggling to find shelter and hesitating to go to centers set up by authorities because of coronavirus risks.

Some in San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties, south of San Francisco, opted to sleep in trailers in parking lots or on beaches along the Pacific Ocean as they fled a combination of fires dubbed the CZU Lightning Complex.

Tourists in Santa Cruz County were urged to leave hotels or vacation rentals to free up space for people fleeing the blazes.

Governor Gavin Newsom highlighted the crisis in a pre-taped speech to the Democratic National Convention Thursday evening, saying the fires were directly linked to climate change.

– ‘Climate change is real’ –

“Climate change is real,” he said. “If you are in denial about climate change, come to California.”

Newsom also took aim at President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly criticized the state for its handling of the fires and threatened to withhold funding if it doesn’t “clean the forests.”

“Just today, the president of the United States threatened the state of California — 40 million Americans that happen to live here in the state of California — to defund our efforts on wildfire suppression, because he said we hadn’t raked enough leaves,” Newsom said. “Can’t make that up.”

The governor told reporters in an update Friday that most of the fires are burning in unpopulated areas and have chewed through some 771,000 acres — the size of the state of Rhode Island.

He also walked back some of his criticism of Trump, saying the president had been open to helping the state in its firefighting efforts.

“There is not one phone call I have made to the president where he hasn’t quickly responded, and almost in every instance has responded favorably … as it related to these wildfires,” Newsom said.

“He may make statements publicly, but the working relationship privately has been a very effective one,” he added.

The governor said several states, including Oregon, New Mexico and Texas, sent reinforcements to help battle the fires.

Meanwhile the smell of smoke lingered in San Francisco and other regions for the third consecutive day on Friday, with authorities urging residents to stay indoors.

“The many fire complexes burning around the Bay Area and Central Coast will keep skies hazy and smoky, at least in the short term,” the National Weather Service said.

Authorities in the Bay Area, which encompasses seven counties, issued an air quality alert in effect through Sunday.