More than 90 fires torched California on Wednesday, overwhelming the state’s capacity to respond as it called for help from the rest of the country. Cal Fire said it needed an additional 125 fire engines and 1,000 personnel to combat the blazes.

Tens of thousands of Californians were under evacuation orders Wednesday as existing fires expanded and new ones emerged.

A serious and urgent situation unfolded in the city of Vacaville, about 35 miles southwest of Sacramento. The city of 100,000 is under partial evacuation orders because of the advancing flames.

There, the LNU Lightning Complex of fires, which has burned more than 46,000 acres in Sonoma, Lake, Napa and Solano counties, advanced into the community overnight and into the predawn hours, prompting urgent evacuations with social media reports of homes consumed by flames as residents fled. This complex includes the Hennessey Fire, which has charred 12,500 acres in Napa County.

The fires in Napa and Sonoma come just a few years after devastating fires there killed 22 in 2017 and wiped out numerous wineries.

Sparked by more than 20,000 lightning strikes and intensified by record-breaking heat, fires have erupted all over the state, spewing large columns of smoke and fouling air quality. The fires and evacuations continued expanding Wednesday.

  • Thousands of structures were threatened by the CZU August Lightning Complex of fires in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, where evacuations were ordered for large areas. This complex has burned 10,000 acres.
  • The SCU Lightning Complex of about 20 fires, affecting locations in Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties, has consumed 85,000 acres and forced evacuations in several areas.
  • The River Fire in Monterey County has consumed more than 10,000 acres, destroyed multiple structures and threatens more than 1,000 more, prompting mandatory evacuations there too.

Several firefighters have suffered injuries battling these blazes.

On Tuesday, the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates federal firefighting efforts, was placed on its highest alert level. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) declared a state of emergency because of the fires on Tuesday as well.

California has been battling a surge in cases of the novel coronavirus for the past two months, and evacuations may complicate efforts to get the virus under control, experts say.

10:45 p.m.
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More California residents evacuated as firefighters battle blazes

Several communities were told to evacuate Wednesday afternoon as firefighters battle hundreds of blazes and officials safely clear the fury’s path, while residents in some areas were told they could return home.

The grouping of fires in the SCU Lightning Complex Fire, stretching across 85,000 acres of mountainous terrain in at least five counties, prompted evacuations in Santa Clara and Stanislaus counties Wednesday, as flames dangerously approached the area east of San Jose city limits and the Diablo Grande community.

In the same complex, some residents in Alameda County were told they could return to their homes Wednesday, indicating that firefighters were gaining ground in some areas. Cal Fire reported the fire was 5 percent contained as of the afternoon.

North of San Francisco, residents in Sonoma County were displaced because of the Wallbridge and Meyers fires, part of the LNU Lightning Complex Fire. The cluster of fires comprised more than 46,000 acres.

The fires in the CZU August Lightning Complex, which has burned more than 10,000 acres in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, initiated evacuations of at least 1,000 residents, according to San Mateo County. Meteorologists expressed concern that this complex was intensifying.

“My hope is that everyone takes these evacuation orders seriously so that we can minimize the loss of property and maximize helping individuals and families stay out of harm’s way,” County Supervisor Don Horsley said in a statement.

9:38 p.m.
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California suffers widespread areas of unhealthy air quality as smoke smothers state

From Southern California through the Bay Area and Sacramento, the smoke emitted by the dozens of wildfires is compromising air quality.

Between the Bay Area and San Luis Obispo, the air-quality index plummeted Wednesday morning. Some areas were experiencing very unhealthy and hazardous pollution levels, the most extreme on the federal government’s scale, designated by purple and maroon shades. The levels, reportedly the highest in the world Wednesday, indicate a high risk of adverse health effects for all people.

San Francisco elevated its air quality alert status to red, meaning people are encouraged to stay indoors with windows and doors shut, especially those who most endangered by poor air quality, such as children, older adults and anyone with respiratory ailments, Mayor London Breed announced in a Wednesday press briefing.

“Please continue to stay home as it is important for both the slowing of the spread of covid-19, and for minimizing your exposure to poor air quality,” Breed said. “But we know not everyone can stay home and that we need to take steps to protect our unhoused residents.”

Non-medical N-95 masks will be distributed to people experiencing homelessness, she said.

As California continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, San Francisco will not shut down outdoor testing sites.

The National Weather Service forecast office in San Francisco ran a model showing dense plumes of smoke dispersing over the state:

As the fires continue burning and emitting smoke, air quality is likely to remain compromised for days.

9:36 p.m.
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California asks the whole country for aid as it battles 92 fires

California is requesting hundreds of fire engines and more than 1,000 accompanying personnel from out of state as it fights 92 known fires, state officials say.

Thousands of lightning strikes amid a record-breaking heat wave have sparked blazes that quickly overwhelmed resources even in a state that’s used to fearsome fire seasons, leading Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to declare a state of emergency.

The state had 10,849 lightning strikes just in the past 72 hours that caused hundreds of fires, according to Cal Fire; some were small and easy to put out, but others spread out of control and became part of huge clusters called fire “complexes.”

Wednesday morning, California requested 125 fire engines from out of state, Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynnette Round told The Post. Each engine typically comes with four firefighters, Round said. But it quickly became clear that that wouldn’t be enough, even as 6,900 people were already assigned to fight the blazes.

New fires were still popping up. Overburdened crews needed relief. With low humidity and high heat, officials worried that things could quickly escalate amid high winds, Round said, and they raised the request to 375 engines.

At first, California sought help from others in the region: Oregon, Washington state, Nevada, Arizona, Montana and New Mexico, Utah, Texas, Idaho and Wyoming. Newsom said Wednesday that several of those states are sending aid.

But now California is asking the whole country for help, Round said, and is facing a “fire siege from lightning” not seen in more than a decade.

“We have to work with what we have,” Round said. “And because this all happened at one time, it really stretches your resources, because you’re trying to spread out your firefighters, and you can only — you have only a certain amount to go.”

Correction: A previous version of this post said California is battling more than 360 fires, the number given by the governor. In fact, lightning strikes over the past 72 hours sparked more than 360 fires, and the state is currently fighting 92, Cal Fire officials clarified.

8:57 p.m.
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This is a compound disaster of the kind that scientists have been warning about

The California wildfires come amid a heat wave that has led to forced rolling blackouts, as well as a pandemic that has killed more than 10,000 people in the Golden State alone. For years, scientists have been warning about the increased risk of compound disasters, with climate-related extremes, such as the ongoing heat wave and fires, overlapping with other crises to form a bigger challenge.

The pandemic has left the state with fewer firefighters at its disposal, because of the lockdown of some prisoner firefighting units after covid-19 outbreaks in penitentiaries.

The pandemic complicates officials’ evacuation strategies and plans for individual families told to leave at a moment’s notice. Many people have been directed to staging areas that are outdoors and pose a lower transmission risk for covid-19. Meanwhile, as has happened with the two landfalling hurricanes so far this season, shelters need to think through social distancing and protective equipment such as masks.

Newsom (D) described his state as having stretched resources given the overlapping challenges, and he is appealing to other states for firefighting help.

8:41 p.m.
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Thousands of lightning strikes sparked the California blazes

California had already been roasting in a relentless, record-breaking heat wave when the wildfires began en masse. Unlike in past wildfire events, the cause of these blazes is not a mystery, given that the Golden State saw an unusual outbreak of August thunderstorms that lit up the early morning sky Sunday above San Francisco, sending bolts of lightning into the parched forests and grasslands. With more than 350 fires ignited in a short period, firefighters and emergency management officials were quickly overwhelmed.

“This 20 year forecaster cant recall such a widespread [thunderstorm] event on the heels of such a heat wave,” wrote one National Weather Service meteorologist in the San Francisco office’s forecast discussion late Sunday.

According to Chris Vagasky of Vaisala, which operates a lightning detection network that monitors every bolt in the United States, California experienced 11 percent of its typical annual lightning activity between midnight Aug. 15 and midnight Wednesday.

In this period, 63,941 lightning discharges occurred, including more than 20,000 cloud-to-ground strikes. Lightning, particularly bolts sparked by “dry thunderstorms” because of their lack of appreciable rainfall, has long been known as a major cause of wildfires in the United States and many other countries. But so much lightning occurring in this region at this time of year is rare.

7:45 p.m.
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Number of evacuation orders growing in Northern California

Evacuation orders are still expanding around two major California wildfire clusters raging completely or mostly out of control.

The number of people evacuated so far due to the LNU Lightning Complex fires in Northern California was not available at a news conference providing updates at 11 a.m. local time. Calling the tally ever-changing and spread across counties, officials said only that the overnight evacuations were “tremendous” in scale and that the numbers are sure to grow.

New orders were posted for Napa County midmorning and again at roughly the time of the news conference, as authorities begged people to heed their warnings and said they were concerned about any communities to the south of the flames.

To the south, the even bigger SCU Lightning Complex — which has been burning in several Bay Area counties and extends east into San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties, as well — also prompted new evacuation orders and warnings as Wednesday wore on.

The combination of an intense heat wave, dry vegetation and an unusual outbreak of thunderstorms has caused a smattering of fires that grew and in some cases merged. In the LNU Complex area, officials said, lightning sparked some 60 blazes.

“Unfortunately, several fires got away from us,” Cal Fire Unit Chief Shana Jones said.

Tim Ernst, an operations section chief with one of Cal Fire’s incident teams, said in a midday update that a Saturday night spate of lightning left officials battling 18 fires in the SCU Complex area alone. Another round of lightning Sunday made matters worse, Ernst said.

Since then, he said, officials have made some “good progress” in an upper zone of the complex and expect that part to be contained in the next few days.

But in a zone to the east, deep canyons and heavy brush have made firefighting especially challenging. That’s where authorities want to concentrate their efforts once they can reposition resources from other blazes.

6:27 p.m.
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California faces dozens of wildfires spanning more than 200,000 acres

Officials are tracking and battling 29 wildfires and fire “complexes” — clusters of many smaller blazes — spanning more than 200,000 acres around California, according to an updating map from the state fire agency Cal Fire.

Most of them flared up in the last few days, testing the state’s resources; three emerged on Wednesday. Many are zero percent contained, including the second-largest in acreage for which Cal Fire provides details: the LNU Lightning Complex fire that grew rapidly overnight in Napa and Sonoma counties.

That complex is made up of eight fires, Cal Fire’s latest incident report says. The CZU August Lightning Complex, also at zero containment, is made up of 22 blazes. The biggest of the active fire complexes detailed, the Bay Area’s SCU Lightning Complex, is composed of about 20.

The SCU Lightning Fire Complex is just 5 percent contained and has burned 85,000 acres in Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties, Cal Fire says.

The agency does not provide acreage and containment details for seven California fires that are not Cal Fire incidents.

6:06 p.m.
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Elevated fire danger persists over northern California, with risk of ‘extreme’ behavior

The excessively hot, dry, and windy weather over California has intensified the erupting blazes, and warnings for high fire danger will continue into Thursday.

Red flag warnings cover much of northern California and are scattered throughout much of the intermountain west.

“Very low humidity combined with gusty winds will continue critical fire weather conditions today into Thursday morning,” the National Weather Service wrote for affected areas in California.

In some areas, relative humidity may drop to about 10 percent Wednesday afternoon, while winds gust to 20 to 30 mph and locally higher at high elevations.

“Very hot and unstable conditions will continue to support extreme fire behavior where fuels are dry, and locally critical fire-weather conditions will develop where local, terrain-related enhancements of surface winds can occur,” wrote the Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center.

On Thursday, humidity levels are forecast to increase while wind speeds decrease, lowering the fire risk some in northern California. However, the Weather Service office in San Francisco cautioned breezy onshore winds and and dry conditions “may complicate fires inland."

A measure of the atmosphere’s thirst, known as the Evaporative Demand Drought Index, has been near record levels in parts of central California, increasing the fire risk.

An onslaught of lightning strikes helped kick off this fire episode over the weekend, with even a rare display in the San Francisco Bay area. Then the combination of hot, dry and windy weather fanned the flames.

Examples of extreme fire behavior have been plentiful.

On Saturday, the rapidly expanding Loyalton Fire in Lassen County, Calif., between Reno, Nev., and Lake Tahoe, produced a barrage of extreme fire tornadoes that prompted a first of its kind “fire tornado warning.”

The LNU Lightning Complex Fire north of San Francisco progressed about three miles to the southeast in just an hour and a half early Wednesday, forcing firefighters and first responders to scramble. As the fire advanced, a PG&E weather station recorded a temperature spike to 114 degrees, indicative of heat coming from the blaze.

5:13 p.m.
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Thick smoke extends from Northern California to the Pacific, and inland across the West

Smoke from the California wildfires stretches for hundreds of miles out into the Pacific to the west, and northeastward over Nevada, Oregon and Idaho. Satellite imagery clearly shows the dark smoke, which is worsening air quality in the San Francisco Bay area along with inland regions.

Smoke plumes from the most intense fires to the north and northeast of San Francisco can also be seen in the image, taken by NOAA’s GOES-17 satellite. Some people downwind of the fires are reporting ash falling from the sky, which they are reporting to fire researchers via Twitter.

5:03 p.m.
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Homes destroyed in wildfire’s path to Vacaville

Multiple homes went up in flames Wednesday as the LNU Lightning Complex exploded in size and raced toward Vacaville from northwest to southeast, according to reporters on the scene.

One video from San Francisco Chronicle reporter Matthias Gafni showed charred ruins near English Hills Road, while another captured houses burning along Pleasants Valley Road. A gas line exploded by a house there, the Chronicle reported.

The Vacaville fire chief said Wednesday morning that he could not speak to damage outside city limits but that firefighters have been able to protect homes within their jurisdiction. Will Powers, a spokesman for Cal Fire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit, said he knows structures have been damaged, though he could not speak to where.

Powers said that he is waiting on numbers for total evacuations due to the LNU Lightning Complex but that 6,000 Sonoma County residents were told to leave as of Tuesday night.

That number will climb throughout the day, he said.

Powers said resources have been deployed toward “all parts of the fire” but added that firefighters have not been able to get to some areas because of steep terrain. They are hoping helicopters can combat the flames in those harder-to-reach places.

He said he couldn’t speak to the tactical decisions that — according to the Chronicle — left some homes burning without firefighters on the scene. But he emphasized that “those decisions were made for a reason,” with public safety and the safety of first responders top of mind.

“Statewide, we are stretched pretty thin,” he said, echoing other officials.

4:16 p.m.
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Thousands of homes under evacuation in Vacaville, where flames reached city limits

Several thousand homes are under evacuation orders or advisories in Vacaville, Calif., where a cluster of fires called the LNU Lightning Complex have grazed city limits.

Grim images are emerging from the area. Reporters shared photos and video of blackened land, burned cars and roads surrounded by flames.

But Vacaville fire chief Kris Concepcion told The Washington Post on Wednesday morning that firefighters have managed to keep the blaze from homes within Vacaville. Flames burned some fences along the city’s western edge, he said. All night long, authorities have been going door-to-door — they’re still going, he said just before 9 a.m. local time.

Meanwhile, firefighters are bracing for what Concepcion called “erratic and extreme fire behavior” fueled by swirling winds, dry air and scorching temperatures amid a statewide heat wave.

Vacaville is expected to hit 102 degrees on Wednesday, he said. “We’re just getting prepared for the long haul right now,” Concepcion said, adding the main focus is protecting homes.

The fires have upended lives already disrupted by the coronavirus. Classes — moved online because of the pandemic — have been canceled citywide because of evacuations, the school district announced Wednesday morning. Vacaville officials announced a steadily expanding list of evacuation advisories as flames headed for the northwest part of the city, adding new areas as recently as about 7:30 a.m. local time.

“Practically every single first responder unit in town is actively working to safely notify, evacuate and fight the fires, so our residents are safe,” the Vacaville Police Department tweeted. It was not clear Wednesday morning how many people have been evacuated from the area because of the broader LNU Lightning Complex. Cal Fire representatives could not immediately be reached.

3:13 p.m.
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California’s heat wave and wildfires have ties to climate change

The scorching, unrelenting heat in the West and the ensuing fires are probably linked to climate change, based on studies to date. Climate research has consistently shown clear links between the severity, occurrence and duration of heat waves, like the one now gripping the West, and human-caused global warming.

Similarly, studies show that climate change is lengthening the fire season in the West and leading to larger blazes than would otherwise occur. The 2018 National Climate Assessment, which was published by the Trump administration, projected worsening heat waves and wildfires in the Southwest and West as climate change continues.

The exceptionally hot and dry conditions currently in the West are made possible by a significant ridge of high pressure, colloquially referred to as a “heat dome.” Air inside the system sinks and warms, while drying out and eradicating any widespread shots of rainfall.

On weather maps, a rare number appeared as a testament to how significant the heat dome is: 600. That describes the height in dekameters, or tens of meters, that the halfway point of the atmosphere’s mass is above the surface.

When air warms, it expands. When it cools, a volume of air shrinks. An air mass this hot expands a lot, causing a column of air to grow and raising the atmosphere’s halfway point. With this particular system, that level is 6,000 meters — or about 19,700 feet — above the surface.

This level “represents a threshold that is coincident with record heat over the Western United States,” wrote Ryan Maue, a meteorologist who operates the website weathermodels.com, in a Twitter message.

Instances of heat domes exceeding this 6,000-meter level used to be rare but have increased dramatically in recent years. Maue examined data back to 1958 and found almost all of the high-powered heat domes have occurred since 1983 — with the overwhelming majority of them occurring since 1990.

“[T]he 6000-meter club ’heat domes' are certainly becoming more frequent b/c of climate change, now a nearly annual occurrence,” he wrote in a Twitter message.

3:01 p.m.
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LNU Lightning Complex fires have injured 4, destroyed 50 structures

As of 7 a.m. local time, four civilians have been injured in the LNU Lightning Complex fires in Northern California that forced urgent evacuations overnight in Napa and Sonoma counties. The blazes have already destroyed 50 structures, damaged 50 more and threaten 1,900 others.

The fires, believed to have been started by lightning strikes Monday, remain zero percent contained, according to an incident update from Cal Fire, the state fire agency.

Numerous roads have been closed in Napa and Sonoma counties. Nearly 600 people have been deployed in response to the complex, which consists of multiple individual fires, officials say. No first responders have been injured, according to Cal Fire, which notes that “air resources have been stretched thin throughout the region” given that so many blazes are competing for authorities’ attention.

2:29 p.m.
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Residents faced harrowing evacuations in Vacaville area

People fleeing the LNU Lightning Complex Fire threatening the Vacaville area shared harrowing stories Wednesday.

“We had to leave the car,” a woman identified only as Diane told Katie Nielsen, a reporter with KPIX 5, in a video posted to Twitter. She was still wearing a nightgown and had run nearly a mile to a main road, according to Nielsen.

“I got all these flames on me, I lost my shoe,” the woman said. “And I made it. God saved me.” It was a familiar scene for reporters who had covered California’s last few devastating fire seasons.

“This feels so horridly similar to what I felt when I was covering the Santa Rosa & Paradise fires,” Nielsen tweeted Wednesday morning, sharing a video of a home burning northwest of Vacaville, a community of 100,000 located southwest of Sacramento, against an orange sky. Sirens could be heard.