Firefighters are battling 560 blazes across California, Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Friday. As of Friday evening, the fires have collectively spread across over 800,000— an area roughly the size of Rhode Island.
At least five people have died: one resident of Solano County, three in Napa County, and a pilot on a water-dropping mission in Fresno County, according to the Associated Press.
The fires started after nearly 12,000 bolts of lightning struck the state in a 72 hour period, Newsom said in a statement on Friday evening. On Tuesday, Newsom declared a statewide emergency, noting that while the lightning likely ignited many of the fires, gusty winds and a statewide heatwave have exacerbated them.
“We are deploying every resource available to keep communities safe as California battles fires across the state during these extreme conditions,” he said.
Nearly 12,000 firefighters have been deployed to fight the wildfires and California is relying on help from other states across the country.
On Friday, Newsom also announced that the state is looking abroad for help as the situation intensifies and has asked for assistance from Australia and Canada to combat the wildfires.
California is currently battling 20 major fires, Newsom said — the largest and fastest-moving are in Northern California.
The biggest is the SCU Lightning Complex Fire in the Bay Area. The complex — a term for multiple fires in one region — began Tuesday morning and has since expanded to encompass nearly 300,000 acres across five counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Joaquin, and Stanislaus. The fire, which is 10% contained, has already become the fourth largest in state history. The fire has injured at least two people and prompted evacuation orders in four of the five affected counties. (San Joaquin is the only one without such orders.)
Farther north, firefighters are battling a giant cluster of six fires known as the LNU Lightning Complex Fire, which has burned more than 302,000 acres in Napa, Sonoma, Lake, and Solano counties, according to Cal Fire. The fire complex injured two emergency workers and two civilians. At least 480 buildings have been destroyed and another 125 damaged. As of Friday evening, the fire was 15% contained. It’s currently the second largest fire in California history.
Meanwhile, in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire has prompted evacuation orders for 64,600 people, injured at least three people, and destroyed 50 structures. The fire began in the Santa Cruz Mountains and has expanded to at least 57,000 acres. The fire is at 2% containment.
Two additional fires in Monterey county, the Carmel and River fires, have quickly grown to over 44,000 acres collectively, destroying 38 structures, injuring at least four people, and prompting about 9,000 evacuations.
Forecasting experts from the National Weather Service’s Bay Area office said in an urgent fire weather message on Friday that the situation could worsen as dry thunderstorms bring more lightening and wind over the weekend.
COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons have caused firefighter shortages
California has relied on incarcerated people to fight wildfires for decades; the state has 3,500 inmate firefighters, making up approximately 25% of the state’s total of 15,500 firefighters.
Meanwhile, the size and strength of the fires across California are stretching the state’s existing firefighting resources, according to the LA Times. Governors in Nevada and Arizona have agreed to send crews to help.
Poor air quality throughout the region
Much of California can feel the fires’ impacts in the air. Most of the state’s north and central regions are reporting unhealthy air quality, with some reporting hazardous outdoor air. San Francisco residents have seen falling ash, according to SFGate. The area’s Air Quality Management District has issued “Spare the Air” alerts through Sunday, which prohibit residents from burning wood.
Air quality in the Bay Area and Central Coast will be “very poor for the foreseeable future given rapid spread of fires and stagnant air mass,” the National Weather Service’s Bay Area branch tweeted on Wednesday.
Ashy skies have been reported as far away as Shasta Lake, more than 200 miles north of Napa and Sonoma counties.
Usually when air quality suffers, fire-safety experts recommend staying inside as much as possible and wearing N95 masks when outdoors, since those filter out smoke particles. But given the a nationwide shortage of N95s, many Californians lack effective masks.
Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of wildfires
The wildfires erupted toward the end of a major heat wave across the western US, which caused temperatures to top 100 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of Northern California.
Climate change increases the likelihood of extreme heat events: The 10 warmest years on record overall have all occurred since 1998, according to NOAA. After a heat wave in Europe killed 70,000 people in 2003, researchers calculated that climate change made such a heat wave four times more likely.
The hotter and drier land gets, the likelier fires are to occur. A recent analysis by Stanford University found that average temperatures during wildfire season in California have risen by more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit, while precipitation has dropped by 30%. Those conditions have more than doubled the state’s total number of extreme wildfire risk days in autumn.
Nine of the 10 biggest fires in California history have occurred since the year 2003.
But the trend isn’t limited to one state. Large wildfires in the US overall now burn more than twice the area they did in 1970. In the western part of the country, the average wildfire season is 78 days longer than it was 50 years ago.
Rhea Mahbubani, Frank Carber, and Sophia Ankel contributed reporting.