Most condors survive California wildfire that destroyed sanctuary

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – At least 90% of condors on the central California coast survived a wildfire that tore through their forest range and destroyed a sanctuary for the endangered birds, a wildlife group said on Wednesday.

Word that 90 of the 100 condors in California’s Big Sur had been accounted for came as home losses mounted from much larger blazes burning to the north in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A siege of dry-lightning strikes during a record heat wave sparked blazes that have raced through coastal redwood forests, destroying hundreds of homes and burning California’s oldest state park in the Santa Cruz mountains.

Cooler temperatures for a second straight day helped firefighters battle the largest blazes, as state wildfire authority Cal Fire reported 1,700 houses and other structures burned in fires that have killed seven people.

There were no condors inside pens at the sanctuary when it was destroyed last week, but 10 free-flying birds are missing and four nesting chicks are unaccounted for, said biologist Kelly Sorenson, who is hopeful they may be alive.

“They often nest in redwood trees high off the ground and redwood trees are quite fire resistant,” said Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, which ran the sanctuary and is raising funds to rebuild it.

As biologists hunted for signals from the condors’ radio transmitters, fire authorities began going through burned communities to quantify the number of homes destroyed.

“We anticipate that number to grow substantially in the coming days and weeks,” Governor Gavin Newsom told a news briefing. “Once the fires are suppressed and we get back in and start seeing repopulation we’re likely to discover additional fatalities.”

Over 120,000 people remained under evacuation orders and some like Bryan Miller learned their homes had been lost.

“I have one remaining picture of my parents,” said Miller, 31, who stuffed the photograph in a backpack as he fled the fire that burned his studio in Brookdale, one of 538 homes and structures destroyed in the Santa Cruz mountains fire.

Across Northern and Central California over 15,000 firefighters from around a dozen states battled dozens of fires sparked by the barrage of over 14,000 dry-lightning strikes that have scorched an area larger than the state of Delaware.

Newsom pointed to the CZU fire, the largest in recorded history in the area’s coastal rainforests, as a consequence of rising temperatures.

“This is again another testament, a demonstrable example of the reality, not just the assertion, the reality of climate change in this state,” he said.

In the north Bay Area, nearly 1,000 homes and structures, many in farms and vineyards, were incinerated in the wine country of Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties.

The so-called LNU Lightning complex fire, the third-largest in California history, jumped to 33% containment.

In the south Bay Area evacuation orders were lifted for communities across four counties where the state’s second largest fire in history was 25% contained after burning an area larger than Los Angeles.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; Editing by Tom Brown and Leslie Adler)

California braces for more lightning as wildfires kill 7

By Adrees Latif

AETNA SPRINGS, Calif. (Reuters) – California braced for more lightning storms, which have sparked over 600 wildfires in the past week, but firefighters got some relief as temperatures eased off record highs.

The worst of the blazes, including the second and third largest in California history, burned in the San Francisco Bay Area with roughly 240,000 people under evacuation orders or warnings across the state.

Much of Northern California, including the Sierra Nevada Mountains and coast, was under a “red flag” alert for dry lightning and high winds, but the National Weather Service dropped its warning for the Bay Area.

Close to 300 lightning strikes sparked 10 new fires overnight and more “sleeper fires” were likely burning undiscovered in areas shrouded by dense smoke, Governor Gavin Newsom said.

One huge blaze burned in ancient coastal redwood forests south of San Francisco that have never seen fire due to usually high relative humidity levels, Newsom said.

“We are in a different climate and we are dealing with different climate conditions that are precipitating fires the likes of which we have not seen in modern recorded history,” Newsom told a news briefing.

The wildfires, ignited by over 13,000 lightning strikes from dry thunderstorms across Northern and Central California since Aug. 15, have killed at least seven people and destroyed over 1,200 homes and other structures.

Smoke from wildfires that have burned over 1.2 million acres (485,620 hectares), an area more than three times larger than Los Angeles, has created unhealthy conditions for much of Northern California and drifted as far as Kansas.

The LNU Complex, the second largest wildfire in state history, began as a string of smaller fires in wine country southwest of Sacramento but has merged into a single blaze that has burned around 350,000 acres of Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo and Solano counties.

It was 22% contained as of Monday while to the south the SCU Lightning Complex was nearly as large, at 347,000 acres, and only 10% contained.

“I’m nervous, I don’t want to leave my house, but lives are more important,” Penny Furusho told CBS television affiliate KPIX5 after she was told to evacuate from the south flank of the SCU fire.

Over 14,000 firefighters are on the wildfires, with 91 fire crews traveling from seven states and National Guard troops arriving from four states, Newsom said.

(Reporting by Adrees Latif in Aetna Springs, California; Editing by Tom Brown)

Firefighters, military planes, troops arrive in California to fight massive blazes

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Crews from across the U.S. West, military planes and National Guard troops poured into California on Sunday to join the fight against two dozen major wildfires burning across the state, as officials warned of more dry lightning storms approaching.

The worst of the blazes, including the second and third largest wildfires in recorded California history, were burning in and around the San Francisco Bay Area, where more than 200,000 people have been told to flee their homes.

“Extreme fire behavior with short and long range spotting are continuing to challenge firefighting efforts. Fires continue to make runs in multiple directions and impacting multiple communities,” the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said of the largest conflagration, the LNU Lightning Complex.

The fires, which were ignited by lightning from dry thunderstorms across Northern and Central California over the past week, have killed at least six people and destroyed some 700 homes and other structures. All told nearly one million acres have been blackened, according to Cal Fire.

Smoke and ash has blanketed much of the northern part of California for days, drifting for miles and visible from several states away.

The LNU Complex, which began as a string of smaller fires that merged into one massive blaze, has burned across roughly 340,000 acres of Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo and Solano counties, Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said at a news briefing on Sunday.

It is now the second-largest wildfire on record in the state and was only 17% contained as of Sunday afternoon. To the south the SCU Lightning Complex was nearly as large, at 339,000 acres, and only 10% contained, Berlant said.

CREWS ARRIVE FROM OTHER STATES

Outside the Bay Area, the flames were threatening forests near the University of California at Santa Cruz and a wide swath of the area between San Francisco and the state capital of Sacramento.

Reinforcement crews and fire engines have arrived from Arizona, Montana, Nevada, Texas and Utah, with more on the way, Berlant said. Some 200 members of the National Guard had been activated and the U.S. military sent planes, he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday declared the fires a major disaster, freeing up federal funds to help residents and businesses harmed by the fires in seven counties pay for temporary housing and repairs.

Berlant said more dry thunderstorms were forecast through Tuesday and so-called red flag warnings had been issued across much of the northern and central parts of California during a record-breaking heat wave that has baked the state for more than a week, caused by a dome of atmospheric high pressure hovering over the American Southwest.

Meteorologists say that same high-pressure ridge has also been siphoning moisture from remnants of a now-dissipated tropical storm off the coast of Mexico and creating conditions rife for thunderstorms across much of California.

Most of the precipitation from the storms evaporates before reaching the ground, leaving dry lightning strikes that have contributed to a volatile wildfire season.

The American Lung Association has warned that the coronavirus pandemic has heightened the health hazards posed by smoky air and extreme heat. Inhaling smoke and ash can worsen the weakened lungs of people with COVID-19, said Afif El-Hassan, a physician spokesman for the lung association.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Daniel Wallis)