California’s lightning-sparked wildfires more than doubled in size into some of the largest in state history on Friday with charred debris floating into Santa Cruz as flames advanced to the edge of the coastal city.
At least six people have died, 43 fire fighters and civilians have been injured, and over 500 homes and other structures destroyed as fires have burned an area larger than the U.S. state of Rhode Island.
Firefighting forces were overwhelmed after battling around 560 blazes in the last week, Governor Gavin Newsom on Friday appealing for support from places as far afield as Canada and Australia.
The state has been hit by its worst dry-lightning storms in nearly two decades. Close to 12,000 strikes have sent fire racing through lands parched by record-breaking heat, forcing 175,000 people to evacuate their homes, largely in the San Francisco Bay area.
In Santa Cruz, a city of around 65,000, residents had evacuation ‘go bags’ at the ready and bulldozers dug fire lines as flames came within a mile of the University of California Santa Cruz campus.
Videos showed giant Redwood trees, some over 2,000 years old, standing largely unscathed among the torched ruins of buildings in California’s oldest state park that burned to the north.
“This is climate change and the escalation of what we always knew would be happening,” Hannah Wilson-James told the San Francisco Chronicle after her family lost three houses on property they’ve owned for 100 years in the Santa Cruz mountains. “It’s apocalyptic, but we have to be prepared.”
A complex of blazes east of Palo Alto and another in wine country south of Sacramento are the seventh and tenth largest wildfires in state history, respectively, according to CalFire.
The state wildfire authority warned that more dry-lightning storms, caused by record heat, were expected as early as Sunday.
With up to 20 separate blazes burning in some lightning-fire complexes, firefighters and locals pleaded for more support.
“We’re still understaffed for a fire of this size,” said Daniel Potter, a Cal Fire spokesman, in reference to the Santa Cruz blaze where crews are working 72-hour shifts to save homes in towns like Ben Lomond.
“We need HELP in the Santa Cruz mountains. SEND IN THE NATIONAL GUARD NOW!” tweeted San Jose State University professor Scott Myers-Lipton.
President Donald Trump, as has been the case in past years, blamed the fires on California’s failure to clean forest floors and threatened to cut off funding. But Newsom said the federal government had agreed to invest a record sum in addressing just such issues.
“He may make statements publicly, but the working relationship privately is an effective one,” Newsom told a press conference.
Four people died in the so-called LNU Complex fire in the North Bay area that has destroyed over 480 homes and structures, including a winery as it burned over 219,000 acres in five counties. All evacuees were allowed to return to their homes in Vacaville on Friday as containment of the fire stood at 7%.
A utility crewman died on Wednesday while on duty helping clear electrical hazards for first-responders at the same fire. Earlier that day, the pilot of a firefighting helicopter was killed in a crash in Fresno County.
“All our first responders are working to the ragged edge of everything they have,” said state assemblymember Jim Wood.
Plumes of smoke and ash fouled air quality for hundreds of miles around fire zones, adding to the misery and health risks of residents forced to flee or those stuck inside sweltering homes that lacked air conditioning.
Medical experts warned that the coronavirus pandemic has considerably heightened the health hazards posed by smoky air and extreme heat, especially for older adults and those already suffering from respiratory illnesses.