Lightning-sparked fires rage across California, tens of thousands flee

By Steven Lam

VACAVILLE, Calif. (Reuters) – A firefighting helicopter pilot was killed in a crash, and scores of homes burned in California on Wednesday as hundreds of lightning-sparked blazes forced tens of thousands of people to flee their dwellings.

Nearly 11,000 lightning strikes were documented during a 72-hour stretch this week in the heaviest spate of thunderstorms to hit California in more than a decade, igniting 367 individual fires. Almost two dozen of them have grown into major conflagrations, authorities said.

Multiple fires raced through hills and mountains adjacent to Northern California’s drought-parched wine country, shutting down Interstate 80 at Fairfield, about 35 miles (56 km) southwest of Sacramento, as flames leapt across the highway, trapping motorists caught in a hectic evacuation.

Police in the nearby town of Vacaville reported that advancing flames had prompted the evacuation of a state prison there and a medical facility for inmates.

Four residents whose communities were overrun by flames hours earlier in the same area suffered burns but survived, though the severity of their injuries was not immediately known, said Will Powers a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).

He said thousands of residents were under mandatory evacuation orders in a four-county area stricken by a cluster of nine wind-driven fires collectively dubbed the LNU Complex, triggered by lightning on Monday.

In central California, a helicopter was on a water-dropping mission in Fresno County about 160 miles (258 km) south of San Francisco when it crashed, killing the pilot, a private contractor, CalFire said.

As of Wednesday night, the LNU complex of fires had burned largely unchecked across 124,000 acres (50,000 hectares), with zero containment, destroying at least 105 homes and other structures and leaving another 70 damaged, CalFire said. Several of the fires had merged by nightfall.

Wearing a singed nightgown, Diane Bustos said her husband abandoned their car as it caught fire and then blew up on the west side of Vacaville early Wednesday morning. She lost both her shoes when she and her family ran for their lives.

“I made it, God saved me,” Bustos told television station KPIX.

There were social media accounts of people trapped in the blaze, but CalFire’s Powers said authorities had no reports of anyone missing.

A Reuters reporter saw dozens of burned-out homesteads and houses in the Vacaville-Fairfield area, dead livestock among torched properties and some animals wandering loose.

“We are experiencing fires the like of which we haven’t seen in many, many years,” California Governor Gavin Newsom told a news conference, adding he had requested 375 fire engines from out of state to help.

He declared a statewide fire emergency on Tuesday.

The last time California experienced dry lightning storms of such devastating proportions was in 2008, said CalFire spokesman Scott Maclean.

Fanned by “red-flag” high winds, the fires are racing through vegetation parched by a record-breaking heat wave that began on Friday. Meteorologists have said the extreme heat and lightning storms were both linked to the same atmospheric weather pattern – an enormous high-pressure area hovering over America’s desert Southwest.

The largest group of fires, called the SCU Lightning Complex, had scorched at least 102,000 acres some 20 miles east of Palo Alto, while a third cluster, the CZU August Lightning Complex, grew to more than 10,000 acres and forced evacuations around 13 miles south of Palo Alto.

(Reporting by Steven Lam in Vacaville, Calif.; Additional reporting by Jane Ross and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento. Writing and reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Stephen Coates, Sandra Maler and Lincoln Feast.)

California governor says COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, trending down

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The rates of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions were all trending downward in California in the latest counts, the governor said on Monday.

Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said that despite that good news, the state’s Central Valley agricultural region was still being hit hard by the coronavirus. He said the data had yet to reach a point for lifting pandemic restrictions.

“This virus is not going away,” Newsom said at a daily coronavirus briefing. “It’s not going to take Labor Day weekend off or Halloween off or the holidays off. Until we have a vaccine we are going to be living with this virus.”

California, the country’s most populous state with some 40 million residents, has recorded a total of 514,901 confirmed COVID-19 infections and 9,388 deaths, according to the governor’s office.

The state’s seven-day average of infections has dropped more than 21 percent, compared to the previous period, Newsom said, and hospitalizations are down 10 percent in a 14-day average.

California has administered more than 8 million tests for COVID-19, and the rate of positive results has declined to seven percent over the last 14 days, compared to 7.5 percent in the previous two weeks.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Sandra Maler and Howard Goller)

Ravaged by COVID-19, California’s Central Valley gets 190 federal healthcare workers

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – Nearly 200 federal healthcare workers have been deployed to California’s Central Valley agricultural breadbasket, where hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases and new infection rates are soaring, Governor Gavin Newsom said on Monday.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Kids, safety and schools: A pandemic debate plays out in California county

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – In Sutter County in California’s bucolic Sacramento Valley, coronavirus cases are rising, but Mike Ziegenmeyer wants his kids back in the classroom.

Unlike big-city school districts that plan to offer only remote learning this fall as COVID-19 rages through the state, several school districts in this agricultural region – once part of the 19th century gold rush – intend to accommodate that wish.

“I want my kids in school,” said Ziegenmeyer, a county supervisor and political conservative. “I think they need the social interaction.”

Ziegenmeyer, at least for now, will get his wish. The tiny Brittan School District where his three children attend class plans to bring students back to the classroom.

But opposition by some other parents in the county shows how Sutter County is a microcosm of a debate raging across California and the United States of whether it is safe to reopen schools amid a resurgent wave of coronavirus cases.

Cases started rising sharply in Sutter, as elsewhere in California, at the beginning of June and have continued to climb, increasing from about 75 cases to nearly 700. At least 17 people from Sutter, with a population of 97,000 and just a few hospital beds, were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of July 16, and 378 are currently ill, county data show.

Like so many of the controversies related to the pandemic, the school issue has become increasingly politicized. Republican President Donald Trump has been urging a return to regular school schedules, while many Democrats advocate a more cautious approach, such as continuing with the virtual lessons widely introduced when the spreading pandemic forced a sudden shutdown of schools in the spring.

Ziegenmeyer resents what he says is a heavy-handed approach by Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, who early this week put the brakes on the reopening of California’s economy as he reversed orders that had allowed many businesses to open their doors again. On Friday Newsom will release new guidelines on reopening schools.

Ziegenmeyer is also concerned parents will suffer economic harm if they can’t work because children are home from school.

HYBRID MODEL

In California, many large urban districts, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento, have said they will begin the academic year with remote instruction. But plans vary from county to county, and from one school district to another.

The board of the Yuba City Unified School District, Sutter’s county seat and its largest municipality with 67,000 residents, voted last week to reopen with traditional instruction, five days per week.

The move, which was against the superintendent’s recommendation, stunned parents and teachers expecting either remote learning or a hybrid model, under which children attend small classes for part of the week, with strict social distancing. The teachers union began tense negotiations on Thursday over the plan.

“It is my hope that they will change their minds,” said Dina Luetgens, president of the Yuba City Teachers Association, which wants a hybrid model under which only half the district’s students would be on campus at a time.

In-person instruction, even under such a model, would require careful planning and protective gear for teachers as well as students, she said. Without that, teachers and children would be safer studying remotely from home, she said.

The school district did not respond to requests for comment. But Superintendent Doreen Osumi told the local Appeal-Democrat newspaper the district would have to implement social distancing guidelines and require children to wear face coverings. Parents who do not wish to send their children back to school will be allowed to choose a remote learning plan, although it was not immediately clear how it would be organized.

Sutter County is no stranger to not following the crowd. In May, Sutter, neighboring Yuba and Modoc counties defied state restrictions aimed at controlling the coronavirus spread and allowed restaurants, retail stores and fitness centers to reopen even though it was prohibited by state guidelines.

The guidelines Newsom is expected to release on Friday could upend plans to reopen school campuses. But even if reopening continues, Leslie Gundy says she will not send her two children back to school in Yuba City.

“We are in no way prepared to do that,” said Gundy, whose husband is a teacher in the district. “There’s been too little communication about their plan and how they are going to keep my children safe – and our teachers safe.”

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler)

California shuts down businesses, schools as coronavirus outbreak grows

By Sharon Bernstein and Dan Whitcomb

SACRAMENTO (Reuters) – California’s governor on Monday clamped new restrictions on businesses as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations soared, and the state’s two largest school districts, in Los Angeles and San Diego, said children would be made to stay home in August.

Governor Gavin Newsom ordered bars closed and restaurants, movie theaters, zoos and museums across the nation’s most populous state to cease indoor operations. Gyms, churches and hair salons must close in the 30 hardest-hit counties.

“It’s incumbent upon all of us to recognize soberly that COVID-19 is not going away any time soon, until there is a vaccine and/or an effective therapy,” Newsom said at a news briefing.

The governor called the move critical to stemming a surge in COVID-19 cases that have strained hospitals in several of California’s rural counties.

The public school districts for Los Angeles and San Diego, which instruct a combined 706,000 students and employ 88,000 people, said in a joint statement they would teach only online when school resumes in August, citing “vague and contradictory” science and government guidelines.

The districts said countries that have safely reopened schools have done so only after establishing declining infection rates and on-demand coronavirus testing.

“California has neither,” the statement said, adding, “The sky-rocketing infection rates of the past few weeks make it clear the pandemic is not under control.”

The union representing Los Angeles teachers applauded the strategy in a separate statement released shortly after the school shutdowns were announced.

“In the face of the alarming spike in COVID cases, the lack of necessary funding from the government to open schools safely and the outsized threat of death faced by working-class communities of color, there really is no other choice that doesn’t put thousands of lives at risk,” United Teachers Los Angeles said.

Brenda Del Hierro, who has two children in Los Angeles schools, said resuming traditional instruction was important but the hazards had to be considered. “For their social and emotional well being they need to go back to school. But at the end of the day there is too much of a risk,” she said.

DISTRICTS CLASH WITH TRUMP

The decision to cancel in-person classes puts the districts at odds with U.S. President Donald Trump, who has said he might withhold federal funding or remove tax-exempt status from school systems that refuse to reopen. Most education funding comes from state and local governments.

Administration officials have said data does not suggest attending school would be dangerous for children because their infection rates are far lower than the population at large.

In response to the California districts’ announcement, the White House reiterated that the ideal scenario is for students to go to school. “Hopefully Los Angeles and San Diego can get there soon as well, as that is what is best for children.” spokesman Judd Deer said.

Newsom, who has said during the pandemic that it was up to local school districts to determine how best to educate their students, cheered the announcements by Los Angeles and San Diego.

But Republicans criticized the governor for failing to issue statewide guidelines for schools during the health crisis.

“While he continues to blame Californians for his failure in leadership, his demands to close our small businesses and lack of direction on opening schools will further harm California’s school children and the small businesses that fuel our economy,” Jessica Millan Patterson, chairwoman of the California Republican Party, said in a written statement.

California, along with Florida, Arizona and Texas have emerged as the new U.S. epicenters of the pandemic. Infections have risen rapidly in about 40 of the 50 states over the last two weeks, according to a Reuters analysis.

Despite nearly 28,000 new COVID-19 cases in the last two days in Florida, Disney World in Orlando welcomed the public on Saturday for the first time since March with guests required to wear masks, undergo temperature checks and keep physically apart.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Steve Gorman in Eureka, California, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Lisa Lambert and Doina Chiacu in Washington, and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Writing by Lisa Shumaker and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Howard Goller, Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman)

California to close all beaches, state parks amid coronavirus concerns: memo

By Kanishka Singh

(Reuters) – California Governor Gavin Newsom will announce on Thursday the closure of all beaches and parks in the state amid concerns over the coronavirus pandemic after crowds jammed beaches last weekend, according to a memo seen by Reuters.

The memo was sent on Wednesday by the governor’s office to California’s police chiefs to plan ahead of Newsom’s announcement on Thursday.

“After the well-publicized media coverage of overcrowded beaches this past weekend, in violation of Governor Newsom’s Shelter in Place Order, the Governor will be announcing tomorrow that ALL beaches and all state parks in California will be closed, effective Friday, May 1st,” the memo read.

Newsom’s office and the California Police Chiefs Association did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

While Newsom, a Democrat, has said that curbside retail, manufacturing and other “lower-risk workplaces” should reopen in California within weeks as testing and contact-tracing improve, he has also said the state will step up enforcement of coronavirus-related public health restrictions after the scenes of crowded beaches last weekend.

Officials in the U.S. state’s Orange and Ventura Counties allowed access to their beaches during the warm spring weekend, prompting families and groups to head to the ocean.

The crowds on the beaches put at risk California’s progress in slowing the advance of the novel coronavirus, Newsom said on Monday.

The crowds also exemplified the tension that officials throughout the United States are dealing with as residents chafe under stay-at-home orders and some states begin to loosen them.

In response to the proposed closure of the state parks and beaches in California, Orange County Supervisor Donald Wagner said it was not a wise step.

“Medical professionals tell us the importance of fresh air and sunlight in fighting infectious disease, including mental health benefits,” Wagner said, adding that the order could undermine the cooperative attitude of the county’s residents.

A Reuters tally shows the United States has by far the world’s largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases at more than a million, with total deaths topping 60,000 by late Wednesday.

Cases neared 3.2 million worldwide, with about 227,000 deaths from the highly contagious disease, Reuters calculations show.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Gareth Jones)