Massive Northern California wildfires rage on; one man dead

SCOTTS VALLEY, CALIFORNIA (AP) — Three massive wildfires chewed through parched Northern California landscape on Sunday as firefighters raced to dig breaks and make other preparations ahead of a frightening weather system packing high winds and more of the lightning that sparked the huge blazes and scores of other fires around the state, putting nearly a quarter-million people under evacuation orders and warnings.

At the CZU Lightning Complex fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains, south of San Francisco, authorities announced the discovery of the body of a 70-year-old man in a remote area called Last Chance. The man had been reported missing and police had to use a helicopter to reach the area, which is a string of about 40 off-the-grid homes at the end of a windy, steep dirt road north of the city of Santa Cruz.

The area was under an evacuation order and Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Chris Clark said it was a stark reminder of the need for residents to leave the area.

“This is one of the darkest periods we’ve been in with this fire,” he said.

The fatality was the first for the CZU fire and seventh fire victim in the state in the last week that has seen 650 wildfires across California, many of them sparked by over 12,000 lighting strikes recorded since August 15.

The Santa Cruz fire is one of three ‘complexes’, or groups of fires, burning on all sides of the San Francisco Bay Area. All were started by lightning.

Flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fires leap above Butts Canyon Road as firefighters work to contain the blaze in unincorporated Lake County. PHOTO: AP

Fire crew made progress during the weekend, which saw a welcome break in the unseasonably warm weather and little wind that allowed firefighters to increase what had been precious little containment.

But the forecast on Sunday was ominous — the National Weather Service issued a ‘red flag’ warning for the drought-stricken area, meaning extreme fire conditions including high temperatures, low humidity, lightning and wind gusts up to 105km/h that “may result in dangerous and unpredictable fire behaviour”.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) Battalion Chief Mark Brunton said while he’s confident firefighters did the most with the time they had to prepare, he’s not sure what to expect.

“There’s a lot of potential for things to really go crazy out there,” he said.

The LNU Lightning Complex fire in north of San Francisco and SCU Lightning Complex southeast of the city have within a week grown to be two of the three largest fires in state history, with both burning over 1,295 square kilometres.

The LNU fire has been the most deadly and destructive blaze, accounting for five deaths and 845 destroyed homes and other buildings. Three of the victims were in a home that was under an evacuation order.

Officials surveying maps at command centres are astonished by the sheer size of the fires, Cal Fire spokesman Brice Bennett said.

“You could overlay half of one of these fires and it covers the entire city of San Francisco,” Bennett said on Sunday.

In Southern California, an 11-day-old blaze held steady at just under 106 square kilometres near Lake Hughes in northern Los Angeles County mountains. Rough terrain, hot weather and the potential for thunderstorms with lightning strikes challenged firefighters on Sunday.

Authorities said their firefighting effort in Santa Cruz was hindered by people who refused to evacuate and those who were using the chaos to steal. Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart said 100 officers were patrolling and anyone not authorised to be in an evacuation zone would be arrested.

“What we’re hearing from the community is that there’s a lot of looting going on,” Hart said.

He and county District Attorney Jeff Rosell expressed anger at what Rosell called the “absolutely soulless” people who seek to victimise those already victimised by the fire.

Among the victims was a fire commander who was robbed when he left his fire vehicle to help direct operations.

Someone entered the vehicle and stole personal items, including a wallet and “drained his bank account,” said Brunton.

“I can’t imagine a bigger low-life,” Hart said, promising to catch him and vowing “the DA is going to hammer him”.

Holly Hansen, who fled the LNU fire, was among evacuees from the community of Angwin allowed on Sunday to go back to their homes for one hour to retrieve belongings. She and her three dogs waited five hours in her SUV for their turn. Among the items she took with her were photos of her pets.

“It’s horrible, I lived in Sonoma during the (2017) Tubbs Fire, so this is time number two for me. It’s horrible when you have to think about what to take,” she said. “I think it’s a very raw human base emotion to have fear of fire and losing everything. It’s frightening.”