Crews worked in blistering heat Wednesday to beat back wildfires that ignited across Northern California, sending thousands of people from their homes into smoky air, briefly halting traffic on an interstate and killing a pilot on a firefighting mission.
Hundreds of fires were burning across California, including 23 major fires or groups of fires that Gov. Gavin Newsom blamed on “this extraordinary weather that we’re experiencing and all of these lightning strikes.” He said the state has recorded nearly 11,000 lightning strikes in 72 hours and knows of 367 fires.
Ash and smoke filled the air in San Francisco, which is surrounded by wildfires burning to the north, east and south. The LNU Lightning fire is made up of several fires in five counties north of San Francisco, including in Vacaville, a city of about 100,000 people between San Francisco and Sacramento.
The fire had consumed 72 square miles (186 square kilometers). It jumped Interstate 80 Wednesday afternoon, briefly blocking traffic in both directions.
Police and firefighters went door-to-door before dawn in a frantic scramble to warn residents to evacuate as flames encroached on Vacaville. At least 50 structures were destroyed, including some homes, and 50 were damaged.
“The whole sky was red orange and it was coming over the hill there and it was massive. I’ve never seen anything like it and it only took a few minutes to get here,” said Karen Hansen.
She evacuated her Vacaville home late Tuesday as flames rushed toward their small farm, packing up her smaller animals but unable to bring along two beloved horses. They returned Wednesday to find the house and barn destroyed, but Hansen was thrilled to see that her horses had survived.
“I’m not upset about the house. I’m just happy that my horses and animals are alive and my daughter,” she said.
In eastern San Francisco Bay, a cluster of 20 separate lightning-sparked fires called the SCU Lightning complex was threatening about 1,400 structures in rugged terrain with dense brush. The fires have torched 133 square miles (344 square kilometers).
To the south of San Francisco in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, about 22,000 people were ordered to evacuate because of a fire burning in dense wooded parkland that threatened communities, Cal Fire spokesman Jonathan Cox said.
At least 20 homes had burned, fire officials said.
About 22 fires are part of the complex and most had been burning in relatively remote, dense brush until strong winds overnight Tuesday pushed them into more populated areas, merging some of the fires together. Resources are strapped, he said, given the number of fires burning in California.
“We’re in the unfortunate position where firefighters are going to be spending several days out on the fire line,” he said. “It’s grueling, it’s exhausting.”
In central California, a pilot on a water dropping mission in western Fresno County crashed his helicopter about an hour from New Coalinga Municipal Airport right after 8:45 a.m. Wednesday.
The pilot, whose name has not been released, was working with Guardian Helicopters, based in Fillmore, which had a contract with CalFire to provide emergency services on a call-when-needed basis, said Zoe Keliher, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.
Robert Satz, a pilot and safety manager at the company, said he received word about the crash around 10:30 a.m. He said he had no further details about the crash and declined to identify the pilot.
The Fresno County Sheriff’s search-and-rescue team was summoned shortly after 11 a.m. to recover the body of the pilot, but it has not reached the crash site because it is in the fire zone, said department spokesman Tony Botti said.
“They’re trying to methodically and safely get them in and hopefully not get exposed to the fire,” he said.
The cluster of wine country fires threaten an area that only last year grappled with another massive blaze that forced 200,000 to flee — a task made more complicated this year because of the pandemic.
“This is an incredibly emotional and stressful time for most of us who’ve endured a number of wildfires over the last few years,” said Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick.
In Solano County’s Vacaville, John Gardiner, 60, stayed up all night after receiving an alert from a neighbor of oncoming fire just before midnight. His house and neighbors’ homes were still safe, but he worried that could change with crews anticipating hot winds.
“It was incredible — things swirling, winds just whipping through like a howling, ripping sound and then you could hear explosions going off,” he said. “You can taste smoke in your mouth.”
Victoria Gregorich, 54, said her family loaded up the car and left their Vacaville home after deputies came around 12:30 a.m. to tell them to evacuate. The fire destroyed her greenhouse, but the house was spared. Her neighbors were not so lucky.
“It’s devastating,” she said. “I just thank God we have our home." Elvis Castaneda, 28, and his father, Silverio, spent the night moving ranching equipment to a safer location, removing vegetation and making firebreaks with their tractor around friends’ properties.
“We couldn’t see the flames, but the sky was pretty orange, and we knew it was coming our way,” Elvis Castaneda said.
He said he drove home at 3 a.m. and started packing documents, photos, passports and his guns after hearing that his girlfriend’s family, who live 2 miles (3 kilometers) away, were told to evacuate and move all their farm animals to safety. He got the order to leave after dawn Wednesday.
South of Carmel, nearly 50 miles (80 kilometers) of scenic Highway 1 along the coast was closed due to fires.
In Southern California, an 8-day-old blaze grew to more than 40 square miles (100 square kilometers) near Lake Hughes in northern Los Angeles County mountains.
Chewing through century-old fir, oak and pine, the fire continued to be a threat to 4,570 structures after destroying a dozen. Dangerously hot weather and rough terrain challenged firefighters’ efforts to increase containment, currently estimated at 38%.