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Newsom declares statewide emergency as fires burn across California

The Holser fire consumed more than 1,000 acres by the end of its first day just East of Lake Piru. It's seen on Monday, August 17, 2020. More than 30 wildfires are burning across California. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a statewide emergency in order to help California respond to the fires burning across the state amid an extreme heat wave.

More than 30 wildfires are burning across California, including nearly a dozen that started in the last two days, according to officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and a Los Angeles Times analysis. Officials have said more rolling blackouts were likely Tuesday afternoon and evening due to power shortages tied to the heat.

While the containment of some fires is increasing, other blazes are being sparked and are growing amid a combination of excessive heat and lightning-fueled thunderstorms induced by a tropical storm in the Pacific Ocean.

In a press release, Newsom’s office said that the state had secured assistance this week from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to respond to fires in Napa, Nevada and Monterey counties.

“We are deploying every resource available to keep communities safe as California battles fires across the state during these extreme conditions,” said Newsom. “California and its federal and local partners are working in lockstep to meet the challenge and remain vigilant in the face of continued dangerous weather conditions.”

Cal Fire Capt. Richard Cordova said most of the biggest fires — including several in the Central Valley and Northern California — are believed to have been caused by lightning strikes, which can alight dry grasses and brush.

The River fire in Monterey County, which has burned through more than 4,000 acres and is 10% contained, as well as fires in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties — including the CZU August Lightning Complex, which has burned through 1,000 acres and has no containment — pose threats to the population, Cordova said.

The River fire has already destroyed six structures and damaged two others, according to Cal Fire. More than 1,500 structures remain threatened by the blaze that has prompted mandatory evacuations.

“We had this kind of occurrence happen in 2008, where we had numerous lightning strikes and fires in that region,” Cordova said. “It’s a little late in the thunderstorm season, but not a rarity to see these lightning events take place.”

Firefighters are battling flames amid an intense heat wave that began late last week and has set record high temperatures across California. On Sunday, the mercury in Death Valley reached 130 degrees — possibly the highest mercury reading on Earth in almost 90 years.

“The heat wave is certainly not helping things,” National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Wofford said of the fires, adding that the heat is not only an increased fire risk, but also a burden on firefighters. “It’s been a tough few days, and it’s going to stay pretty hot during the week.”

Storms have also made matters worse. Humidity from the Southeast is a source for some of the state’s thunderstorms, Wofford said, and although rain can help dampen fires and assist in containment efforts, gusty winds created by the storms can be hazardous.

In Southern California, Wofford said that thunderstorms have been contained mostly to the mountains, where the Lake fire in the Angeles National Forest has raged for more than a week. The blaze has burned through more than 22,000 acres and was 38% contained as of Tuesday morning.

In neighboring Ventura County, the Holser fire erupted Monday afternoon near Lake Piru and destroyed more than 1,000 acres. Although the blaze did not grow much overnight, firefighters were not able to make any progress on containment.

Among the largest fires in the state — the Apple fire in Riverside County, which began July 31 — is now 95% contained after burning more than 33,000 acres. The blaze was ignited by a malfunctioning car, Cal Fire officials said.

The fire prompted evacuation orders across the Inland Empire region, which were complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. Designated evacuation centers were abandoned in favor of hotels in order to stem the potential spread of the illness among people in close quarters.

Fire officials say Southern California has entered a new chapter of the 2020 fire season, with vegetation that was soaked by a series of storms in the late spring now dried out and prone to ignition. What comes next are the searing Santa Ana winds of the fall.

“We’re getting to the most critical part … after a long, hot, dry summer,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Darrell Osby said last week.

Cordova cautioned that residents looking to clear brush around their homes as part of fire-prevention efforts should do so before 10 a.m., when the heat is more manageable.

“It’s not too late — just don’t wait until the last minute when we get deeper into fire season,” he said.


© 2020 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.