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Pilot crashes, dies fighting California wildfires

Haven Daley and Janie Har
Associated Press

Vacaville, Calif. — A pilot battling a fire in central California died after his helicopter crashed Wednesday morning.

Cal Fire said in a statement that a Call When Needed helicopter crashed while fighting a wildfire in western Fresno County. The Bell UH-1H helicopter was on a water dropping mission on the Hills Fire, about 9 miles south of Coalinga.

The pilot was the only one on board.

The Fresno Sheriff's office was called shortly after 11 a.m. to assist in a search and rescue mission.

Gov. Gavin Newsom blamed "this extraordinary weather we’re experiencing and all of these lightning strikes” for 367 known fires, including 23 major fires or groups of fires. He said the state has recorded nearly 11,000 lightning strikes in 72 hours.

Police and firefighters went door-to-door before dawn Wednesday in a frantic scramble to warn residents to evacuate as fire encroached on Vacaville, a city of about 100,000 between San Francisco and Sacramento. At least 50 structures were destroyed, including some homes, and 50 damaged.

“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.

Ash and smoke filled the air in San Francisco, which is surrounded by wildfires burning in multiple counties to the north, east and south. The LNU Lightning fire is made up of several fires burning in five counties north of San Francisco, including in Vacaville, and had consumed 72 square miles as of Wednesday morning.

Bill Nichols, 84, works to save his home as the LNU Lightning Complex fires tear through Vacaville, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Nichols has lived in the home for 77 years.

John Gardiner, 60, stayed up all night after receiving an alert from a neighbor of oncoming fire around just before midnight. His house and neighbors' homes were still safe, but he worried that could change as crews anticipate hot winds Wednesday afternoon.

“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 rang the gate 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 the properties of friends.

“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 legal documents, photos, passports and his firearms after hearing that his girlfriend’s family, who live in a ranch two miles away, were told to evacuate and move all their farm animals to safety.

He got the order to leave after dawn Wednesday.

In the East 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.

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.

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.”

Christopher Godley, Sonoma County's emergency management director, also conceded that resources are thin.

“It’s difficult to second-guess what the fire commanders are doing with their aircraft. But it’s not like last year when we saw just a huge wealth of resources flowing into the county," he said. “It is what it is.”

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.

South of Carmel, nearly 50 miles 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 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%.

Har reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writer Juliet Williams and Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco contributed to this report.