Thousands of California residents were under evacuation orders Wednesday as dozens of wildfires continued to tear through the state, sparked by lightning storms and an unrelenting heatwave.
As of Wednesday afternoon, there were about 367 fires raging across California—23 of them considered major blazes—Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a press briefing. After more than 100,000 residents were ordered to flee their homes in one northern California city, Newsom has declared a state of emergency and called on the California National Guard to help with relief efforts.
“This fire season has been very active,” Newsom said, calling Wednesday “another challenging day.” He confirmed that two lightning fires are still burning out of control. “What has happened in the last 72 hours in this state has stretched our resources.”
Newsom stressed that the state is prepared to handle the crisis and emergency responders have enough force and equipment to soon contain the blazes. He added that every firefighting resource is being utilized across the state, and officials have also asked for additional support from other states like Arizona, Nevada, and Texas.
On Wednesday, residents in several northern California areas, including Napa, Sonoma County, and Santa Cruz, were under strict evacuation orders. Sonoma County has also warned of an “immediate threat to life” from the ongoing fires as residents across the state endure rolling blackouts due to the heat and the ongoing blazes.
The forced evacuations put a strain on a state already under siege from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. To date, 11,523 people have died and 638,831 more have been infected in California—a number that could grow as residents are forced into evacuation centers and fire camps.
“This is an incredibly emotional and stressful time for many of us who have endured many fires and natural disasters over the last couple of years,” Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said Wednesday. “We realize this is a trigger point for many in the public and we ask you that you please go to your plan, we’ve all been working on this for the last couple of years, be ready and follow the plan when it comes time to evacuate."
In Vacaville, a city of about 100,000 residents near Sacramento, people were ordered to flee after uncontrollable fires began to overtake the area. Vacaville police officers were going door-to-door on Wednesday to get residents out of their homes, and dispatchers were using a reverse 911 system to ensure no one is left behind. The neighborhood is now under a “red flag” warning by the National Weather Service—a notification issued when conditions are perfect for wildfires.
“I go outside and see the big, red, orange glow on the hill and then I see tons of light,” Clayton Jack, 31, a professional wrestler who lives in Vacaville and was evacuated Tuesday night, told The New York Times. “And then I see a bunch of cop cars that were driving up and down the street.”
A spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said Wednesday that there have been about 10,846 lightning strikes in California over the last 72 hours, a “historic lightning siege” that caused a majority of the fires. Officials say a group of fires, known as the LNU Lightning Complex Fire, has already burned 46,225 acres in Vacaville, Sonoma, Lake, Napa, and Solano Counties—destroying nearly 50 homes and leaving behind a blanket of smoke in its wake.
The fires, which grew more than 14,000 acres overnight, have now burned an area larger than the size of Washington, D.C., authorities said. At least four people have been injured in the blazes.
Another cluster of 20 fires, dubbed the SCU Lightning Complex Fire, has consumed about 85,000 acres, Cal Fire said. These blazes, which also prompted evacuation orders, are located near Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, and Stanislaus. About five fires in the San Mateo and Santa Cruz area, named the CZU August Lightning Complex, scorched about 10,000 acres as of Wednesday morning—forcing about 22,000 people out of their homes.
Cal Fire also reported Wednesday that eight of the nine counties that make up the Bay Area are now fighting fires—excluding San Francisco. A helicopter pilot assigned to a water dropping mission on a Bay Area fire died in a crash Wednesday morning.
“If you have a ‘go bag,’ have some stuff packed up, ready to go, if you feel any type of threat whatsoever, make that decision, make that decision to please leave your home,” Cal Fire Deputy Chief Sean Kavanaugh said Wednesday. “The last thing we want is for people to be trapped in their homes and not be able to get out.”
Authorities say that more than two dozen other fires raging across the state have only gotten worse due to the extreme heat wave that started over the weekend. In California’s Death Valley, residents endured record-breaking heat of 130 degrees, the hottest temperature in the U.S. in over a century. The mercury hit 102 degrees in Sacramento on Wednesday, while temperatures in Napa and Vacaville soared to 98 degrees.
Those high temperatures, combined with arid conditions in a state often plagued by droughts, made conditions ripe for lightning-sparked blazes. As of Wednesday morning, nearly 45 million people across the West Coast were under excessive heart warnings or heat advisories.
“I got out of the house in pretty much what I had on,” Philip Galbraith, 52, told The New York Times after he and his 20-year-old son fled their home overnight. “I got my son and we left.”
San Jose State University has already taken steps to shut down all classes and meetings due to fires, as residents in the area were asked to stay indoors by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
“This decision is based on air quality levels that are expected to rise to unhealthy levels throughout the day and health concerns already heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic for our SJSU community, including for those who are facing evacuations due to fires near their homes," San Jose State Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Vincent J. Del Casino Jr. said in a statement. “With wildfires raging directly east and west of San José, we are monitoring air quality on and around the San José State University campus.”