Firefighters in Northern California are making some progress on containing record-breaking blazes, as tens of thousands of people remain under orders to evacuate across the region.
“We’ve already crossed the threshold this year … to not be on pace, but actually set the pace for an historic wildfire season,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said Wednesday at a news conference. In the past 10 days, more than 700 fires have blazed across the state, burning through 1.3 million acres — eclipsing the five-year average of 450,000 acres burned per year.
Seven people have died so far and about 1,700 houses have been destroyed. Both of those figures are likely to grow as firefighters go through the wreckage in the coming days.
Firefighters have made some progress battling the two biggest fires: The SCU Complex fire in Santa Clara County is now 23% contained, and the LNU Complex fire in Napa County is 33% contained. The blazes have both charred over 350,000 acres and are, respectively, the second and third largest fires in state history.
Of a third fire near Santa Cruz that has reached over 80,000 acres, Newsom said: “In recorded history, we’ve never seen a fire this size and scope in this region of the state — another demonstrable example of the reality of climate change.”
In an earlier news conference Wednesday, Cal Fire incident commander chief Sean Kavanaugh said that with “somewhat stable” weather, the coming days would be critical in fighting the flames. He said he is “optimistic” about their progress, but added: “Make no mistake, there’s a lot of work to be done.”
“We are a long ways from fire season being over,” the Cal Fire chief warned, noting that the deadly 2017 fires in Sonoma were in October, the 2018 fires in Paradise — the deadliest in the state’s history — were in November, and major fires in Southern California in 2017 — the fourth largest in state history — sparked in December.
The massive fires have brought smoky air across much of Northern California over the past week. As of Wednesday, areas around Chico and Redding still had air that the Environmental Protection Agency had deemed “unhealthy.” Such conditions leave unhoused people especially vulnerable.
There are nearly 4,000 people being sheltered by the state amid the fires and evacuations, Newsom said. About 3,000 of them are in hotel rooms rather than the congregate shelters traditionally used, in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Coronavirus hospitalizations have decreased in California in recent weeks, but there is still a seven-day average of 5,700 daily confirmed cases and over 100 people die from COVID-19 per day in the state.
“Wear a mask, please,” Newsom urged Wednesday. “Physically distance where you can.”