Aided by cooler weather and reinforcements, firefighters in California made headway on Wednesday in containing the three giant blazes burning across the Bay Area.
The fires, which were sparked last week by an unusual bout of lightning and stoked by an extended heatwave that desiccated fire-fueling vegetation, were calmed in part by a marine layer – a layer of cool, humid air from the ocean – floating over the region.
“The return of the marine layer has been a welcome one,” the National Weather Service said early on Wednesday, as many residents who had been evacuated from their homes were allowed the return.
The LNU Lightning Complex burning through California’s wine country was 33% contained on Wednesday morning. Having scorched through more than 357,000 acres, it is the third-largest wildfire on record.
Another huge fire, the SCU Lightning Complex burning east of the San Francisco Bay, was 25% contained, according to Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency. It had engulfed more than 365,700 acres, becoming the second-largest fire recorded in California.
Meanwhile, the CZU Lightning Complex has burned through just under 80,000 acres in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties to the south of San Francisco, and is 19% contained. California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, called the fire “another demonstrable example of the reality of climate change in this state”.
“We have never seen a fire this size and scope in this region of the state,” Newsom said at a Wednesday press conference.
The fires have killed at least seven people and destroyed 1,690 homes and other buildings. About 140,000 people are still affected by evacuation orders.
Authorities were working on a strategic plan for repopulating areas after ensuring that conditions were safe and there that there would be water service and electrical power for residents, he said.
The giant fires – coming much earlier in the season than expected – have pushed the more than 15,000 firefighters working the lines to the breaking point as they dealt with complications from the coronavirus pandemic and a lack of inmate crews who assist firefighters.
Some firefighters were shuttled to northern California after battling earlier fires in southern California. “We are putting every single asset we possibly can, pulling every conceivable resource to battle these historic wildfires,” Newsom said.
Tim Edwards, president of the union representing state firefighters, said 96% of the state’s resources were committed to fighting the blazes. He was with a three-man fire engine crew that had traveled more than 400 miles (643km) from southern Riverside county to help fight wildfires in wine country north of San Francisco.
“Between the fires in southern California and these, they’ve been going nonstop,” he said. “Fatigue is really starting to set in, but they’re doing it.”
Since 15 August, hundreds of fires have burned nearly 2,000 sq miles (more than 5,000 sq km), an area roughly the size of Delaware.
While overnight weather conditions provided some relief, the fire-igniting lightning still persisted. Just in the last 24 hours, 423 lightning strikes throughout the state sparked 50 new fires – although the fires that were quickly suppressed, Newsom said.
David Serna, 49, a firefighter with the Presidio of Monterey fire department, was battling a fire in that county when his rented home in Santa Cruz county burned to the ground.
“I wanted to get up to the house and see what was left. Got up there and nothing. It was all gone,” Serna told KTVU-TV.
He and his wife did find a metal heart-shaped decoration from their wedding day.
“All the years that I fought fires and seeing this type of destruction in other places,” Serna said. “But when it hits that close to home, it becomes almost unbelievable.”
In the city of Vacaville, between San Francisco and Sacramento, 76-year-old Art Thomas said he found only ashes and melted metal at the site of the home he built with his own hands in a rural area where he had lived for 32 years.
“Possessions dating back to when I was a kid were all in the house, everything is gone,” Thomas said. “Between sad, crying, laughing – every emotion is there.”
He said he had left with his wife, two dogs and a pair of shorts and tennis shoes.