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CA wildfires kill at least 4 people as some evacuees weigh coronavirus risks at shelters

California Wildfires
Posted at 7:33 AM, Aug 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-21 09:55:51-04

Even for a state prone to natural disasters, California's had a catastrophic week.

At least four people have died as a result of wildfires fueled by a heat wave anda blitz of lightning strikes in the state's northern areas. The clusters of fires merged into orange infernos that are creeping up on residential areas, turning neighborhoods into ash and smoldering ruins.

And as tens of thousands of people evacuate to shelters, they're weighing the risk of coronavirus infections after California became first state to surpass 600,000cases last week.

"Not only are we dealing with Covid, but with also the heat and now the fires," said Cheryl Jarvis, who evacuated to a community center in Vacaville but refuses to go inside for fear of coronavirus infections. She has been sleeping in her Toyota Prius, and has no idea whether her house is still standing.

Vacaville, a city of 100,000 peoplebetween Sacramento and San Francisco, is one of the hardest-hit. Fire has burned homes in and outside the city, though most evacuation orders there have been lifted.

"We are experiencing fires, the likes of which we haven't seen in many, many years," Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

Fires have scorched more acres than last year

Statewide, there have been more than 360 recent fires -- most of them sparked by lightning. Several of those fires spread due to high temperatures, inaccessible terrain and limited resources.

The 22 major blazes still burning have scorched a total of 660,000 acres across the state, said Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director of Cal Fire. They have destroyed or damaged 660 structures.

They include two major fires -- the LNU Lightning Complex in the northern Bay Area, including Vacaville; and the SCU Lightning Complex, burning largely north and east of San Jose. By early Friday, they had torched 215,000 acres and 157,475 acres, respectively.

Roughly 15 miles north of Vacaville, fire killed dozens of animals that Christa Petrillo Haefner kept on her parents' property -- and nearly took her husband, she told CNN affiliate KCRA.

"I lost seven goats, a lamb, about 75 chickens, 20 turkeys, five ducks and a mare — and a foal did not make it" because fire swept onto the property in Yolo County just outside Winters early Thursday, Haefner told the station.

The family fled unharmed in the middle of the night, but not before a close call.

"(My husband) was up on the tractor doing a fire break, and ... a big gust of wind came up, and the fire went literally up and over him," Haefner told KCRA.

California wildfires have caused more deaths and destruction so far this year than all of 2019. All of last year, they charred a total of 260,000 acres and killed three people in the state, according to Cal Fire.

Several global air quality monitoring websites show that the air quality levels in California's Bay Area are worse than anywhere else, including locations generally regarded as having the poorest air quality such as India and eastern China.

Deaths reported in various counties

At least four deaths were reported Thursday as a result of the LNU fire -- the largest burning in the state. It consists of at least 11 smaller fires stretching across five counties in Northern California.

Three of the deaths are from Napa County and one is from Solano County. In addition to the deaths, four other people were injured, Cal Fire said Thursday.

On Wednesday, a helicopter pilot who was making water drops on the Hills Fire in Fresno County died in a crash. It's unclear whether the pilot's death was included in the four fatalities. CNN has reached out to officials.

More evacuations are underway

More than 28,000 people in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties have evacuated because of the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire, according to Cal Fire. That fire has burned 48,000 acres southwest of San Jose.

Students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, were ordered to evacuate Thursday and "be prepared to not return for at least two weeks," the school said on Twitter.

Fire officials have said they don't have an exact number on how many people have been told to leave their homes.

The top priorities are the safety of the firefighters and the public, evacuation planning, and the protection of structures and infrastructures, Cal Fire Operations Chief Chris Waters said.

Governor slams power blackouts

As if the pandemic, wildfires and scorching heat wave weren't bad enough, some Californians have lost electricity as the state's power grid struggles to keep up with demand.

Rolling blackouts were implemented over the weekend when an intense heat wave caused record-setting temperatures across the state, including a high of 130 degrees in Death Valley on Sunday.

Gov. Gavin Newsom demanded an investigation into the power outages, which he said are unacceptable.

"These blackouts, which occurred without warning or enough time for preparation, are unacceptable and unbefitting of the nation's largest and most innovative state," Newsom wrote in a letter to the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Energy Commission.

Dozens of fires are burning nationwide

Over 11 million people are under an excessive heat warning in the Southwest, CNN meteorologist Robert Shackelford said. Triple-digit temperatures are possible in all these areas with temperatures still above average, he added.

While the West is suffering record-breaking heat, wildfires are ravaging many parts of the US.

At least 86 large wildfires are burning in 15 states nationwide this week -- almost a third of them in California, according tothe National Interagency Fire Center.

The fires have burned a total of 879,039 acres. In addition to California, some states with multiple fires include Arizona with 12, Alaska with seven, and Colorado with five.

How climate change fuels wildfires

Experts have warnedthat wildfires fueled by the climate crisiswill be the new normal in California. Warm-season days in the state have increased by 2.5 degrees since the early 1970s, according to a study published last year in the journal Earth's Future.

"The clearest link between California wildfire and anthropogenic climate change thus far has been via warming-driven increases in atmospheric aridity, which works to dry fuels and promote summer forest fire," the report said.

"It is well established that warming promotes wildfire throughout the western US, particularly in forested regions, by enhancing atmospheric moisture demand and reducing summer soil moisture as snowpack declines."

Park Williams, the study's lead author and a professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, said human-caused warming of the planet has caused the vapor pressure deficit to increase by 10% since the late 1800s, meaning that more evaporation is occurring.

By 2060, he expects that effect to double.

"This is important because we have already seen a large change in California wildfire activity from the first 10%. Increasing the evaporation has exponential effects on wildfires, so the next 10% increase is likely to have even more potent effects," he told CNN last year.

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