SAN FRANCISCO — The second- and third-largest fires in California history are expected to grow in the next few days as a new thunderstorm system moves over the state, producing dry lightning and gusty winds.
The National Weather Service issued red-flag warnings across large swaths of Northern and Central California that went into effect before sunrise Sunday.
The storms could spark more blazes and cause existing ones to spread rapidly, and that is unwelcome news for firefighters, who are already stretched thin.
Crews on Saturday were battling dangerous fires from the Santa Cruz Mountains to wine country and beyond, using a small break in the weather to get a jump on the conflagrations, many of them ignited by lightning strikes.
Also on Saturday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the White House has approved California’s request for a presidential major disaster declaration to bolster the state’s emergency response to wildfires burning in Northern California.
The burning of about 1.2 million acres in California in just a month, according to a Times analysis, is an astonishing toll so early in fire season. In all of 2019, more than 259,000 acres in California burned, according to the Idaho-based National Interagency Fire Center, although that followed a relatively wet winter.
The blazes include the LNU Lightning Complex fire, which at more than 340,000 acres is the second-largest fire in California history. The SCU Lightning Complex fire, currently covering more than 339,000 acres, is the third-largest.
Firefighting resources have been pouring into the region in recent days. But firefighters say they are lacking resources.
In some places, officials said they were being turned down for state help and left to beg equipment and manpower from volunteers and local agencies.
“Many of these firefighters have been on the lines for 72 hours, and everybody is running on fumes,” said Assemblyman Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg), whose district includes wine country areas currently under siege. “Our first responders are working to the ragged edge of everything they have.”
With blazes overwhelming the crews available, fire experts said state officials are now forced to prioritize which fires will get resources and change how equipment and crews will be used. Though officials often try to build defensible lines to contain blazes, fire experts said the focus is now is on saving lives and structures. That means the current blazes could burn for weeks.
“At the statewide level, we do get into this mode where we start wondering where the biggest loss is going to be, what’s the highest priority, and that is where the resources are going to go,” said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire specialist with the University of California Cooperative Extension.
Already, nearly 1,000 homes and commercial buildings have been destroyed by fire since Aug. 15, which marked the start of what officials are calling a “lightning siege” of about 12,000 strikes that started an estimated 585 fires in California.
In San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, the CZU Lightning Complex fire was threatening multiple communities and had forced 77,000 people from their homes. The blaze began as a collection of about 22 fires that largely merged into one, challenging firefighters as they tried to keep the flames away from the towns that dot the rural, mountainous area.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department said it had deployed five engine strike teams, consisting of 23 engines and 101 firefighters, to help with the effort.
The fire had consumed 71,000 acres and was 8% contained as of Sunday morning.
Officials were asking people to stay out of evacuation zones to avoid hazards like fire and downed trees and wires, and to keep roads open for emergency vehicles.
They also warned about criminals taking advantage of the crisis. Authorities on Saturday morning arrested five people on suspicion of looting, grand theft, burglary and conspiracy after they were stopped driving away from the Fall Creek Drive area, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office said.
Someone also broke into the department vehicle of a firefighting commander while he was out battling the blaze, stole his wallet and drained his bank account, Mark Brunton, Cal Fire operations chief, said at a briefing Sunday.
“It’s saddening, it’s sickening and we are doing everything we can to try to help the community and unfortunately these [things] happen,” Brunton said.
Meanwhile, local officials also continued to beg tourists to stay away.
The Santa Cruz County Emergency Operations Center said it was requesting that visitors refrain from traveling there through Sept. 1 to keep overnight accommodations available for evacuees.
More than 45,000 county residents have been displaced by the fires, and though the county is operating 12 shelters, capacity is limited because of COVID-19, officials said. Many local hotels, motels and vacation rentals are also booked.
“DO NOT visit us now,” the county said in a tweet. “Air quality is poor, ash is everywhere, and we’re dealing with an unparalleled catastrophe. This is no time for a day at the beach.”
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