Thousands of firefighters were battling to contain three massive fires in California on Monday, as a record-breaking heatwave lingered across large parts of the western United States.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said 14,800 firefighters were battling 23 major fires across the state, which has the highest population in the US.
The Creek Fire, which began in the Fresno area of central California on Friday, was 0 percent contained as of Monday afternoon, fire officials said despite 850 firefighters on the scene for three days in sweltering conditions.
The blaze, growing under “extreme weather conditions,” had devoured nearly 79,000 acres (32,000 hectares) of land and its cause remained under investigation, Cal Fire said in a statement.
A hiker who had just begun a multi-day trip when the Creek Fire broke out and had to find a way out of the blaze shared the harrowing experience on social media.
“We’re safe and we’re out, but wow, we hiked our way out of the #CreekFire yesterday,” Asha Karim posted on Twitter.
We were at the edge of the pyrocumulus cloud, running ahead of its border. At that time we didn’t know if it was a new or active fire, nor where it was. We watched our route along the ridgeline disappear into smoke. We pulled out our sat phones to ask around pic.twitter.com/LdsJXjhsFR
— Asha Karim (@ashasquasha) September 7, 2020
Firefighters working in steep terrain through the night saved the tiny town of Shaver Lake from flames that roared down hillsides towards a marina. To the north, about 30 houses were destroyed in the remote hamlet of Big Creek.
“About half the private homes in town burned down,” Big Creek resident Toby Wait said. “Words cannot even begin to describe the devastation of this community. And it is a very close-knit community.”
A primary school, church, library, general store and a major hydroelectric plant were spared in the community of about 200 residents, Wait told the Fresno Bee.
Sheriff’s deputies went door to door to make sure residents were complying with orders to leave. Officials hoped to keep the fire from pushing west into rural towns and possibly Yosemite National Park.
On Saturday, rescuers in military helicopters airlifted 207 people to safety after flames trapped them in a wooded camping area near Mammoth Pool Reservoir northeast of Fresno.
Further south, firefighters scrambled to douse several fires that roared to life in searing temperatures, including one that closed mountain roads in Angeles National Forest and forced the evacuation of the Mount Wilson Observatory.
Cal Fire said a blaze in San Bernardino County called the El Dorado Fire started on Saturday morning after a couple let off a smoke-generating pyrotechnic device during a “gender reveal” party for their baby.
In eastern San Diego County, the Valley Fire had destroyed at least 10 structures after burning 41.44sq km (16sq miles) and prompting evacuations near the remote community of Alpine in the Cleveland National Forest.
Nearly 400 firefighters are battling the blaze, and video shared on social media showed firefighters dousing the flames, the air thick with ash and fire embers.
The blaze was at only 1 percent containment as officials issued more evacuation orders on Monday afternoon and announced the deployment of military aircraft to help fight the rapidly spreading flames.
Late on Sunday, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Fresno, Madera, Mariposa, San Bernardino and San Diego counties because of the fres, which also prompted the US Forest Service to temporarily close some national forests to visitors.
Daytime temperatures in fire zones neared or exceeded triple digits.
The centre of Los Angeles reached 44C (111F ) on Sunday and a record-shattering high of 49.4C (121F) was recorded in the nearby Woodland Hills neighbourhood of the San Fernando Valley. It was the highest temperature ever recorded in Los Angeles County, according to the National Weather Service.
Meanwhile, downtown San Francisco set a record for the day with a high of 37.7C (100F) on Sunday, smashing the previous mark by five degrees.
Earlier than usual
The exceptionally hot temperatures were driving the highest power use of the year, and transmission losses because of wildfires have cut into supplies. The California Independent System Operator, which manages the state’s power grid, warned that up to three million people could lose power Sunday if residents did not reduce their electricity usage.
The #ValleyFire currently has eight air tankers assigned to the incident. When the retardant is dumped it can be a spectacular sight. Video taken 9/6/20 at 5:14 p.m. near Alpine pic.twitter.com/rwyXFpEEbD
— CAL FIRE/SAN DIEGO COUNTY FIRE (@CALFIRESANDIEGO) September 7, 2020
Cooler temperatures were expected on Tuesday but the weather change could also bring winds that could fan the fires.
Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility serving customers in Central and Northern California, warned customers that it might cut power starting Tuesday because of the increased fire danger. Some of the state’s largest and deadliest fires in recent years have been sparked by fallen power lines and other utility equipment. All of Northern California, the most populous state in the US, is under moderate to severe drought conditions.
California has seen 900 wildfires since August 15, many of them started by an intense series of thousands of lightning strikes. So far, the blazes have burned more than 2 million acres (809,371 hectares) in California this year, setting a state record.
The most striking thing about the record is how early it was set, with the most dangerous part of the year ahead, said Lynne Tolmachoff, a spokeswoman for Cal Fire.
“It’s a little unnerving because September and October are historically our worst months for fires,” she said. “It’s usually hot, and the fuels really dry out. And we see more of our wind events.”
The previous high was 1.96 million acres (793,184 hectares) burned in 2018. Cal Fire began tracking the numbers in 1987.