Wildfire leaves California’s oldest park too hazardous for visitors

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – The lightning-sparked wildfire that ravaged Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California’s oldest state park, has left it too dangerous for visitors, officials said Tuesday during a tour of the burned area by Governor Gavin Newsom.

Numerous blazes that grew together near Santa Cruz and razed the visitor center, lodge and nature museum also charred redwood, fir and oak trees, leaving many weakened or dead and likely to fall, parks district Superintendent Chris Spohrer said, according to a pool report provided to news organizations.

It will take a year or more to find and remove all of the trees that pose a danger of falling, Spohrer said.

“If this is not a gut punch, then you’re truly not conscious as a human being,” Newsom, a Democrat, said after the tour of the park established in 1902.

One tree still smoldered near two massive ancient redwoods, dubbed the Mother and Father of the forest.

Another tree, famous for having an opening in its massive trunk large enough for an automobile, suffered moderate to extensive damage during the fire but remains standing. Newsom walked inside, expressing awe at its apparent survival.

The fires in the Santa Cruz Mountains where the park is located broke out Aug. 17 after an hours-long lightning storm that grew into one of more than two dozen major conflagrations that destroyed homes and forced nearly 200,000 people to evacuate in different parts of California.

Nearly 14,00 lightning strikes, mostly in central and northern California, have ignited hundreds of individual fires since Aug. 15. Those fires have collectively charred more than 1.48 million acres – a landscape larger than the state of Delaware, according to CalFire.

Seven fatalities have been confirmed, and nearly 2,500 homes and other structures have been reduced to ruin.

(Writing by Sharon Bernstein; editing by Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman)

Firefighters make headway against lightning-sparked California wildfires

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California fire officials on Sunday reported significant headway battling the two largest of dozens of lightning-sparked blazes raging in and around the greater San Francisco Bay area since mid-August, though 60,000 people remained under evacuation.

As of Sunday firefighters had managed to carve containment lines around 56% of the perimeter of a colossal wildfire that has burned more than 375,000 acres across five counties north of the bay, including a swath of the Napa and Sonoma valley wine country region.

That marked a major gain from 41% containment listed a day earlier for the blaze, dubbed the LNU Lightning Complex fire, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).

Containment of a slightly larger fire called the SCU Lightning Complex, which has charred more than 377,000 acres in four counties east and south of the bay, grew to 50% on Sunday, up from 40% on Saturday, CalFire said.

Those two blazes together – which rank as the second- and third-largest wildfires on record in California – account for half of total acreage set ablaze during the past two weeks in a series of catastrophic lightning storms.

Firefighters, helped by cooler weather after a record-breaking heat wave abated, have gained ground elsewhere across the state, as well.

“We definitely have increased containment on all of the major fires, evacuations are being lifted and weather conditions are more favorable,” CalFire spokeswoman Christine McMorrow told Reuters by phone. “We are definitely making progress.”

Nearly 14,00 lightning strikes, mostly in central and northern California, have ignited hundreds of individual fires since Aug. 15, many of which merged into bigger conflagrations. Those fires have collectively charred more than 1.42 million acres – a landscape larger than the state of Delaware, according to CalFire.

Seven fatalities have been confirmed, and nearly 2,500 homes and other structures have been reduced to ruin. Smoke from the fires also badly degraded air quality throughout the region, adding to health hazards already posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

While CalFire said more than 60,000 residents remained displaced throughout the fire zone as of Sunday morning, McMorrow said “quite a few” evacuation orders and warnings were being lifted.

Meteorologists said the recent spate of dry lightning, the heaviest seen in California in more than a decade, was linked to the same atmospheric high-pressure system that caused a lengthy heat wave, which in turn further desiccated dense, fire-prone vegetation across the state.

Scientists point to lengthy droughts and longer-than-normal stretches of extreme heat as evidence of climate change that has steadily intensified and prolonged wildfire season in California and across the Western United States in recent years.

Climatologist Zach Zobel said California is on track to overtake the nearly 2 million acres burned in 2018, when the state suffered its deadliest wildfire in history, as well as the most acreage burned on record gong back to 1987.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Devastating bushfire conditions to worsen in Australia

By Lidia Kelly

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Rising temperatures, lightning strikes and erratic winds are set to fan wildfires in Australia in the week ahead, officials said on Sunday, with emergency crews already working day and night to contain more than 130 blazes.

The state of New South Wales, where 367 homes have been lost in the past week, reported 56 fires burning with about half yet to be contained, fire services said.

A heatwave forecast for this week is expected to heighten dangers in the state. The fires have already claimed four lives across the country’s east coast.

“We are expecting to see a worsening of conditions, particularly as we start heading into Tuesday and then continuing through Wednesday and Thursday again,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

Crews from interstate and New Zealand were expected to bolster firefighters’ efforts from Monday in combating the blazes and to relieve volunteers.

Australia’s bushfires are a common and deadly threat but the early outbreak this year in the southern spring has already claimed several lives and destroyed hundreds of homes.

Authorities in Queensland issued emergency warnings for part of the state, where nearly 80 fires were burning on Sunday and as the region braced for more hot and dry weather in the week ahead.

“Until we get significant rainfall, the fires will not go out,” Queensland’s acting Fire and Emergency Commissioner, Mike Wassing, said in televised remarks.

(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sam Holmes)