‘Best Day Yet’: Crews Make Slow But Steady Progress Containing Historic Bay Area Blazes

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Austin Giannuzzi, left, embraces Cliff Giannuzzi on Aug. 23, 2020 while viewing the charred remains of their home in Vacaville, one of many Solano County residences destroyed by the Hennessey Fire, part of the LNU Lightning Complex. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Aided by favorable weather and reinforcements, firefighters were cautiously optimistic Tuesday about their progress in hemming a series of massive lightning-sparked wildfires on the outskirts of the Bay Area. The unprecedented blazes, which began last week, have charred more than 1 million acres, killing at least seven people, forcing some 170,000 residents to evacuate  and destroying more than 1,200 homes and other buildings.

At this time last year, California had about 4,300 wildfires that burned about 87.5 square miles — the toll this year is 7,000 fires and nearly 2,200 square miles, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday.

“We are dealing with different climate conditions that are precipitating in fires the likes we haven’t seen in modern recorded history,” he said.

Cal Fire is currently in talks with the National Guard and the California Conservation Corps about providing reinforcements as an already devastating wildfire season threatens to get even worse.

The early season blazes have grown to some of the largest in state history, with firefighters stretched increasingly thin as they also deal with complications from the coronavirus pandemic and depleted inmate crews.

“Historically it’s September and October when we experience our largest and our most damaging wildfires. So to be in the middle of August and already have the second- and the third-largest wildfires in our state’s history is very concerning to us,” Daniel Berlant, chief of wildfire planning and engineering at Cal Fire, said Tuesday.

Fire Resources

Among the largest and most destructive fires are the three huge complexes burning to the north, east and south of the Bay Area, which have forced mass evacuations and shrouded much of the region in thick smoke. Two of those fires — the SCU and LNU lightning complexes — are now the second- and third-largest fires in California history.

Firefighters and residents got a welcome break Monday, when a warning about more dry lightning and strong winds was lifted, and temperatures cooled slightly, allowing crews to make slow but steady progress in further containing the blazes.

“The past couple days we've seen significant progress in our firefight on this incident,” said Mark Brunton, operations chief with Cal Fire, in reference to the CZU fire complex burning in the Santa Cruz mountains. “The weather's really cooperating with us.”

Helicopters dropped 200,000 gallons of water on that blaze on Monday, he said, calling it “the best day yet.”

In addition to better weather, fire crews along with bulldozers and other equipment were arriving from other states.

But officials warned the danger was far from over and admonished the estimated 170,000 residents under evacuation orders — the majority in and around the Bay Area — to stay away from their homes until the orders are lifted.

“It is highly dangerous in there still,” Jonathan Cox, a Cal Fire deputy chief, said of the blaze north of Santa Cruz. “We have bridges that have failed, old wooden bridges that have failed that may not appear failed to people that they may drive on. It is not safe,” he said.

Latest Developments

When separate fires are burning near each other Cal Fire often dubs them "complexes." There are three such massive groups of fires currently burning in and around the Bay Area:

  • LNU Lightning Complex: Sonoma, Napa, Solano, Yolo, Lake counties (including the Hennessey, Gamble, Walbridge, Meyers and Green fires)
  • SCU Lightning Complex: Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, Stanislaus counties (including fires in the Deer, Calaveras and Canyon zones)
  • CZU August Lightning Complex: San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties (including the Warnella, Waddell fires)

LNU Lightning Complex

Click on each of the following links to see each county's evacuation updates: Napa CountySolano CountyLake CountyYolo County and Sonoma County.

The LNU complex of fires, ignited by lightning strikes in Napa County on Aug. 17, consists of seven separate blazes burning in five different counties, including Sonoma, Napa, Solano and small sections of Yolo and Lake counties.

As of Tuesday morning, the fire complex had grown to nearly 353,000 acres and was 29% contained, Cal Fire reported, making it the third-largest wildfire in California history. Firefighting efforts have been hindered by the multidirectional movements of the fires, which are threatening numerous communities. The group of blazes have so far claimed the lives of at least five people, injured at least four more and destroyed more than 937 homes and other buildings, while continuing to threaten 30,500 other structures.

In the western area of the fire complex, crews made good progress over the weekend on fighting the Meyers Fire north of Jenner near the Sonoma County coast, with nearly 100% containment, and were working on reopening Highway 1 and lifting evacuation orders, Cal Fire said Monday.

The Walbridge Fire, south of Lake Sonoma, was 7% contained as of Monday evening, with crews working to "connect the dots" and secure the fire from moving any farther south toward Guerneville and other Russian River communities. In the eastern part of the LNU Complex, officials said the highest firefighting priority is now an area near Calistoga, where efforts are being made to prevent the fire from moving north into Lake County.

SCU Lightning Complex

The SCU Lightning Complex is approximately 20 separate fires broken into three zones: the Canyon, Calaveras Zone and Deer zones. As of Tuesday morning, the fires have collectively burned 363,772 acres — making it the second largest complex of fires in California history — and were 15% contained, Cal Fire said.

The blazes are largely burning in steep, rugged terrain in mostly less populous areas across Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties, and have led to some evacuation orders, mainly near San Jose. The fires have so far caused two civilian injuries and destroyed 12 structures, while threatening about 20,000 others.

Cal Fire officials on Monday afternoon said fires in the Deer Zone, south of Mt. Diablo, had been completely contained. Meanwhile, in the Calaveras and Canyon zones, the fires had merged, with crews managing to contain half of the blaze's northern boundary and the majority of its eastern boundary, while still trying to thwart it from spreading south.

The top firefighting priority, officials said, is to contain the fires on the western front along the Calaveras zone, where they continue to pose a threat to more populous areas along the Highway 101 corridor.

CZU August Lightning Complex

The CZU August Lightning Complex consists of multiple smaller lightning-sparked fires in the Santa Cruz mountains that merged into a massive blaze in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, forcing more than 77,000 residents to evacuate, including the entire UC Santa Cruz campus. As of Tuesday morning, the fires had burned 78,869 acres and remain 17% contained, killing one person, destroying 246 residences, mostly in Santa Cruz County and threatening more than 24,000 others, according to Cal Fire.

Jonathan Cox, deputy chief of the San Mateo/Santa Cruz unit of Cal Fire, shared in Monday evening's press briefing that the number of firefighting personnel has increased to 1,609.

"Obviously, every number of firefighters that comes on the line has a direct correlation to the percent increase in containment that we can gain, so that's a welcome development for us," Cox said.

Cal Fire explained that the progress made on Monday was attributed to the day's favorable weather and clearer air, which allowed for more resources and equipment to be brought in.

This comes on the heel of Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office announcement on Sunday evening that a 70-year-old man died near the town of Davenport, marking the first reported fatality linked to those fires.


Additional Reporting from the Associated Press