‘Extreme behavior’: California sets record as wildfires torch more than 2M acres this year

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Intense heat, parched conditions and high winds fueled record-shattering wildfires and strained the electrical grid across much of California on Monday, forcing the Forest Service to close eight national forests.  

California has been struggling with a record-breaking fire season this year – more than 2 million acres have been torched. The days ahead look equally grim.

“Existing fires are displaying extreme fire behavior, new fire starts are likely, weather conditions are worsening, and we simply do not have enough resources to fully fight and contain every fire,” said Randy Moore, regional forester for the USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region.

In Northern California on Monday night, Fresno County Fire Department reported that up to 50 people were trapped near Lake Edison and that 14 hikers were trapped near China Peak. A rescue effort was unsuccessful due to “heavy smoke conditions,” Fresno County PIO stated in a social media post. Another effort was being planned to evacuate the trapped people.

Fresno County Lt. Brandon Purcell stressed during a press conference that the trapped people “are safe” and “just can’t get out because of roadblocks.”

Most of the hikers had started their routes Friday before the Creek Fire ignited. The fire has since grown to 135,000-plus acres, and is 0% contained. At least one person died, according to Fresno Battalion Chief Tony Escobedo.

“’You can’t hardly see in front of you,” area resident Jack Machado said. “The sky’s turning red. It looks like Mars out there.”

Earlier, helicopters pulled more than 200 people to safety as flames raced nearby from the Creek Fire roaring through a section of the Sierra National Forest since Friday. Firefighters were able to save the tiny town of Shavers from the flames, but the blaze surrounded Mammoth Pool Campground and destroyed about 30 homes in the town of Big Creek.

More than 12,000 lightning strikes in the past three weeks have sparked almost two dozen major fires, according to Cal Fire. The fires have burned tens of thousands of acres, destroyed homes and caused thousands of residents to flee.

September and October are historically the worst fire months, Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said: “It’s usually hot, and the fuels really dry out. And we see more of our wind events.”

Widespread power outages had not materialized, although almost 60,000 homes and businesses were dark Monday afternoon. The state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, was preparing to cut power to 172,000 customers in 22 counties in the northern half of the state to reduce the possibility its lines and other equipment could spark new fires.

In Southern California, a pyrotechnic device at a gender-reveal event sparked a fire that roared through thousands of acres. The El Dorado Fire near Yucaipa began burning Saturday, and authorities said the culprit was a device sometimes used to release blue or pink smoke to announce the gender of an expected baby.

The fire, 70 miles east of Los Angeles, had burned more than 7,000 acres and was 5% contained Monday. Evacuations were ordered in several small communities.

Temperatures in the fire zone have climbed into the 90s, and downtown Los Angeles reached as high as 111 degrees in recent days. A record high temperature of 121 degrees was recorded in the nearby Woodland Hills neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley. 

“CAL FIRE reminds the public that with the dry conditions and critical fire weather, it doesn’t take much to start a wildfire,” the press release said. “Those responsible for starting fires due to negligence or illegal activity can be held financially responsible and criminally responsible.”

Fire officials: El Dorado blaze sparked during gender reveal party

The family that used the pyrotechnic device tried to extinguish the fire themselves, then called 911 and remained on the scene until firefighters arrived, Cal Fire Capt. Bennet Milloy said. The family has “absolutely been cooperating” with officials, Milloy told The Desert Sun on Monday. He described the event as a small gathering of family members rather than a “party.”

No arrests have been made, and it will be up to the district attorney whether any charges will be filed, he said. Possible charges also depend on whether any homes are lost or people injured, Milloy said.

More than 200 campers rescued by helicopter: Creek Fire prompts state of emergency in California

Gov. Gavin Newsom urged state residents to keep their thermostats at 78 degrees or higher, to use appliances sparingly and to keep lights off whenever possible. 

“Power outages were avoided … due in large part to individual conservation efforts,” Newsom said. “Even more conservation efforts are needed.”

Newsom has declared a statewide emergency and secured a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration to bolster the state’s emergency response. He also issued an emergency proclamation for the counties of Fresno, Madera and Mariposa, which are fighting the Creek Fire; for San Bernardino County, which is battling the El Dorado Fire; and for San Diego County because of the Valley Fire.

More than 14,000 firefighters were battling the blazes.

“As we reflect on Labor Day, we want to thank the firefighters and first responders that have worked tirelessly battling the August Lightning Siege fires,” Newsom said. “Thank you.”

Contributing: Sheyanne N. Romero and Joshua Yeager, Visalia Times-Delta; Nicole Hayden and Colin Atagi, Palm Springs Desert Sun; The Associated Press

A firefighter battles the Creek Fire as it threatens homes in the Cascadel Woods neighborhood of Madera County, Calif., on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020.

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