California wildfires chase people from homes into smoky air

APTOPIX_California_Wildfires_77846 Bill Nichols, 84, works to save his home as the LNU Lightning Complex fires tear through Vacaville, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Nicols has lived in the home for 77 years. Fire crews across the region scrambled to contain dozens of wildfires sparked by lightning strikes as a statewide heat wave continues.
California_Wildfires_29504 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. Fire crews across the region scrambled to contain dozens of wildfires sparked by lightning strikes as a statewide heat wave continues.
California_Wildfires_54465 An outbuilding burns as the LNU Lightning Complex fires tear through the Spanish Flat area of unincorporated Napa County, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. Fire crews across the region scrambled to contain dozens of wildfires sparked by lightning strikes as a statewide heat wave continues.
California_Wildfires_04033 A dead cow rests on the side of a road after the LNU Lightning Complex fires tore through Vacaville, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Fire crews across the region scrambled to contain dozens of wildfires sparked by lightning strikes as a statewide heat wave continues.
California_Wildfires_15858 Seen in a long exposure photograph, embers burn along a hillside as the LNU Lightning Complex fires tear through unincorporated Napa County, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. Fire crews across the region scrambled to contain dozens of wildfires sparked by lightning strikes as a statewide heat wave continues.
California_Wildfires_03285 Matt Nichols tries to save his home as the LNU Lightning Complex fires tear through Vacaville, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Fire crews across the region scrambled to contain dozens of wildfires sparked by lightning strikes as a statewide heat wave continues.
California_Wildfires_53034 Matt Nichols sprays water while trying to save his home as the LNU Lightning Complex fires tear through Vacaville, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Fire crews across the region scrambled to contain dozens of wildfires sparked by lightning strikes as a statewide heat wave continues.
California_Wildfires_91637 Seen in a long exposure photograph, embers burn along a hillside above Lake Berryessa as the LNU Lightning Complex fires tear through unincorporated Napa County, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. Fire crews across the region scrambled to contain dozens of wildfires sparked by lightning strikes as a statewide heat wave continues.
California_Wildfires_39906 Seen in a long exposure photograph, embers burn along a hillside above Lake Berryessa as the LNU Lightning Complex fires tear through unincorporated Napa County, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. Fire crews across the region scrambled to contain dozens of wildfires sparked by lightning strikes as a statewide heat wave continues.
California_Wildfires_50772 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. Fire crews across the region scrambled to contain dozens of wildfires sparked by lightning strikes as a statewide heat wave continues.
California_Wildfires_56756 A fire vehicle passes burning trees on Pleasants Valley Rd. near Winters, Calif., as the LNU Lightning Complex fires tear through the area on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Fire crews across the region scrambled to contain dozens of wildfires sparked by lightning strikes as a statewide heat wave continues.
APTOPIX_California_Wildfires_77846 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. Fire crews across the region scrambled to contain dozens of wildfires sparked by lightning strikes as a statewide heat wave continues.
California_Wildfires_93118 The San Francisco skyline is barely visible through smoke from wildfires Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, in this view from Sausalito, Calif. Thousands of people were under orders to evacuate in regions surrounding the San Francisco Bay Area Wednesday as nearly 40 wildfires blazed across the state amid a blistering heat wave now in its second week. Smoke blanketed the city of San Francisco.
California_Wildfires_61472 Burned vehicles rest beneath a tree after the LNU Lightning Complex fires tore through Vacaville, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Fire crews across the region scrambled to contain dozens of wildfires sparked by lightning strikes as a statewide heat wave continues.
California_Wildfires_95459 The sun rises behind smoke from wildfires Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, at the yacht harbor in Sausalito, Calif. Thousands of people were under orders to evacuate in regions surrounding the San Francisco Bay Area Wednesday as nearly 40 wildfires blazed across the state amid a blistering heat wave now in its second week. Smoke blanketed the city of San Francisco.
California_Wildfires_54476 A rower goes past Angel Island and the sun rising behind in smoke from wildfires Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, in Sausalito, Calif. Thousands of people were under orders to evacuate in regions surrounding the San Francisco Bay Area Wednesday as nearly 40 wildfires blazed across the state amid a blistering heat wave now in its second week. Smoke blanketed the city of San Francisco.
APTOPIX_California_Wildfires_68254 Members of the Grizzly Firefighters fight the Carmel Fire near Carmel Valley, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.
California_Wildfires_90629 Firefighters take refuge in their trucks in a cleared field as a wildfire also known as the Hennessey Fire jumped Knoxville Berryessa Road, west of Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.
California_Wildfires_24330 A wildfire also known as the Hennessey Fire crosses Knoxville Berryessa Road, west of Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.
California_Wildfires_37187 The Carmel Fire burns near Carmel Valley, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.
California_Wildfires_02320 A helicopter carrying water to drop on the the Carmel Fire flies over Georis Winery near Carmel Valley, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.
California_Wildfires_34141 A fence post along Cachagua Road burns in the Carmel Fire near Carmel Valley, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.
California_Wildfires_28455 A firefighter holds a hose on Cachagua Road as he and colleagues work against the Carmel Fire near Carmel Valley, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.
California_Wildfires_85756 Trees near a vineyard on Cachagua Road burn in the Carmel Fire near Carmel Valley, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.
California_Wildfires_72048 Firefighters on Cachagua Road fight the Carmel Fire near Carmel Valley, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.
California_Wildfires_92372 Members of the Grizzly Firefighters work against the Carmel Fire near Carmel Valley, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.
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VACAVILLE, Calif. (AP) — 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 “extraordinary weather” 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.

Five to seven people were injured in a fire in Stanislaus County, southeast of San Francisco, Sheriff Jeff Dirkse told the Sacramento Bee.

One had major burn injuries and all were taken by ambulance for treatment, he said.

Someone evacuating on Monday had reported that workers at an illegal marijuana farm were still at the ranch but he couldn’t confirm if any were among the patients.

Two fires in Solano County prompted evacuation orders for 8,000 residents near the Russian River. In Healdsburg, with a population of about 12,000, people were warned late Wednesday to be ready to flee.

Ash and smoke filled the air in San Francisco, which is surrounded by wildfires to the north, east and south. The LNU Lightning Complex 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.

Nearby Travis Air Force Base ordered non-mission essential personnel to evacuate, officials said.

The fire had consumed nearly 194 square miles (502 square kilometers) Wednesday night, an area larger than the size of San Jose.

It jumped Interstate 80 Wednesday afternoon, briefly blocking traffic in both directions.

Several thousand people in the small communities of Angwin and Deer Park were ordered evacuated.

Police and firefighters warned residents before dawn 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 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 in dense wooded parkland, 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 were 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.

“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 as needed, 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 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 overnight after receiving a neighbor’s alert of oncoming fire just before midnight. His house and neighbors’ homes were 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 the car and left their Vacaville home after deputies told them to evacuate around 12:30 a.m. 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 nearly 50 square miles (106 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 36%.

___

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

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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