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California firefighters 'taxed to the limit' seeking help

Janie Har and Martha Mendoza
Associated Press

Santa Cruz, Calif. — More than two dozen major fires were scorching California on Thursday and taxing the state's firefighting capacity, sparked by an unprecedented lightning siege that dropped nearly 11,000 strikes over several days.

The fires have destroyed 175 structures, including homes, and are threatening 50,000 more, said Daniel Berlant, an assistant deputy director with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. In all, 33 civilians and firefighters have been injured.

Most of the activity is in Northern California, where fires have chewed through nearly 500 square miles of brushland, rural areas, canyon country and dense forest surrounding San Francisco.

More than 10,000 California firefighters are on the front lines, but fire officials in charge of each of the major fire complexes say they are strapped for resources. Some firefighters were working 72-hour shifts instead of the usual 24 hours. The state has requested 375 engines and crew from other states.

“That’s going to allow our firefighters that have have been on the front line since this weekend have an opportunity to take some rest," Berlant said.

In Marin County, just north of San Francisco, where a small fire is burning near the Pacific Ocean, county fire chief Jason Weber said he is waiting for assistance from Montana to arrive this weekend.

He said in his 25 years in fire service, “we’ve never seen this level of draw-down” from cooperating agencies, as there is heavy competition in the western United States for equipment and people.

In the coastal mountain regions south of San Francisco, where 26,000 people are under orders to evacuate, the CZU August Lightning complex fire grew overnight to 62 square miles. Officials warned it has the potential to grow significantly in the next day.

A massive column of smoke rises above Highway 1 just north of the Santa Cruz County line as a section of the CZU August Lightning Complex burns above Waddell Beach, Wednesday northwest of Santa Cruz, Calif.

Given depleted resources, one of the best tools firefighters have for public safety is to get people out of harm's way. But some people refused when officers went door-to-door Wednesday night, Cal Fire Chief Mark Brunton said.

“With the resources that we are lacking, we ask you to help us to help us to do our jobs and to keep the public safe,” he said.

Kevin Stover, 42, was struggling with indecision early Thursday when a mandatory evacuation order was issued for the rugged and small town of Felton outside the beach city of Santa Cruz.

“I don’t want to leave,” said Stover, a camera operator and rigger now driving for Door Dash and Lyft because of the pandemic. His car, loaded with important papers, his father’s urn and some arrowheads that meant a lot to him, had a flat tire. He had put a plug in the tire and patched it with gaff tape.

“I’m trying to figure out if I should cut these original oil paintings out of the frame to salvage them,” he said.

The unusual large size and number of fires at once, other fires throughout the West and the loss of inmate firefighting crews this because inmates were released from prisons to prevent the spread of coronavirus have created the perfect storm for firefighting.

“Our agency is taxed to the limit,” said Incident Commander Mike Smith at the fire near Santa Cruz. Officials there are awaiting help from other states, but they are having to look further afield than usual, meaning it will take days for crews to arrive, he said. the U.S. Forest Service can't help because they are busy fighting fires on federal lands.

“This is a very dangerous fire. The probability of an ember igniting something is 100 percent, which is very high. Embers are traveling as far as mile and igniting trees and brush," Smith said.

In addition to about two dozen major blazes, small fires kept erupting, though most were quickly stopped. Crews were also battling blazes in the Sierra Nevada and Southern California wild lands.

In central California, a pilot on a water-dropping mission in western Fresno County died Wednesday morning when his helicopter crashed. The pilot was working with Fillmore-based Guardian Helicopters, which had a contract with the state fire agency to provide emergency services, said Zoe Keliher, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.

A Pacific Gas & Electric utility worker who had been clearing poles and lines to make the area safe for firefighters died at a fire in the Vacaville area between San Francisco and Sacramento, but the circumstances were not clear. The worker was found in a vehicle and CPR was performed. But he was pronounced dead at a hospital, Cal Fire said.

Two fires in Sonoma County prompted evacuation orders for 8,000 residents near the Russian River Wednesday. Residents of Healdsburg, with a population of about 12,000, were warned Wednesday night to be ready to flee. Fires in that region destroyed more than 100 buildings, including some homes, and threatened 25,000 people across five counties.

Officials said they had insufficient crews there.

“We came into this event short on crews and now with the fire activity across the state they are even more at a premium," said Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said Thursday that California received a federal grant that will reimburse the state for some of the firefighting costs.

The multiple fires in three directions created a smoky haze throughout much of the region.

“Fires are making runs in multiple directions and impacting multiple communities. A critically dry air mass is moving over the area bringing strong winds," Cal Fire said in a statement.

Travis Air Force Base ordered non-mission-essential personnel to evacuate. Residents in nearby Vacaville, a city of 100,000, were roused before dawn Wednesday by orders to flee.

California State Parks announced full or partial closures of more than two dozen parks, including Big Basin Redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where the park headquarters and other facilities were damaged. The park featuring magnificent towering stands of ancient coast redwoods dates to 1902 and is the state’s oldest.

In Southern California, firefighters worked in high heat to increase containment of fires in mountains north and east of Los Angeles. A huge fire also burned in the remote Mojave National Preserve.

Har reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Olga R. Rodriguez and Juliet Williams in San Francisco and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.