SACRAMENTO • Nearly two dozen massive wildfires continued to ravage parts of California, fuelled by high temperatures and ongoing lightning strikes, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) said.
While conditions eased on Saturday, fire officials are worried that another extreme period of lightning strikes – like the 12,000 strikes blamed for igniting many of the 585 new fires since the previous weekend – could roll through Northern California in the coming days, potentially bringing new blazes to the scorched region.
On Saturday, the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for much of the northern half of the state from 5am yesterday to 11pm today local time.
The fires have killed six people and incinerated nearly 700 buildings. Together, the blazes have burned nearly 400,000ha, the agency said.
Wildfires are threatening parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, the forested region near the University of California at Santa Cruz and a wide swathe of the area between San Francisco and state capital Sacramento.
On Saturday, President Donald Trump declared the fires to be a major disaster, the White House said.
The declaration, which allows federal funds to be used to help people and businesses harmed by the fires in seven counties to pay for temporary housing, home repairs and other needs, came despite a threat from Mr Trump earlier last week to withhold aid from California.
Nearly 14,000 firefighters have been deployed to battle the blazes, but containment of the largest ones remains low and California has requested additional support from other states and local jurisdictions, CalFire said on Saturday.
Governor Gavin Newsom has requested more firefighters from as far away as the United States’ East Coast and Australia.
“They’re scrambling for bodies to help fight the fires,” said Mr Jay Tracy, a fire marshal with the city of Fresno who was deployed as a spokesman for the LNU Lightning Complex Fire, which had burned 127,070ha in five counties, including some of the state’s storied wine country and communities between San Francisco and Sacramento.
Firefighters have improved containment of the southern edge of that fire, but winds are expected to push it north-west towards the wine country towns of Healdsburg and Guerneville, he said.
Number of people killed by the wildfires
Number of buildings incinerated
Number of hectares burned
In the past several years, infernos have scorched the Yosemite National Park, blackened the Joshua Tree National Park’s palm-strewn Oasis of Mara and damaged other famous spots.
Climate change is one of a number of factors making California’s wildfires so catastrophic.
California has always had wildfires, since its low-rain summers tend to dry out vegetation, which serves as fuel when sparks strike.
And while the role of climate change in any particular fire takes time and scientific inquiry to establish, the link between climate change and bigger fires is inextricable.
“Behind the scenes of all of this, you’ve got temperatures that are about 2 to 3 deg F warmer now than they would’ve been without global warming,” said Dr Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
That dries out vegetation even more, making it more likely to burn.