CALIFORNIA — More than 17,000 firefighters were on the ground Wednesday battling California's largest-ever fire season in terms of acreage burned — and experts say this fire season is far from over. Additionally, smoke plumes have traveled across the country, prompting concerns of widespread hampered respiratory health amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.
From the fires burning across the West Coast, more than 35 lives have been lost with thousands of homes and structures destroyed.
As the Golden State remained suspended in a blanket of smoke Wednesday, dry conditions persisted across the state, making California "ripe for wildfires," according to Cal Fire.
And the smoke was affecting more than just California; according to data collected by the European Union's Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, smoke from the West Coast fires was predicted to travel almost 5,000 miles through the atmosphere to Britain and other parts of northern Europe this weekend.
Since the beginning of the year, there have been nearly 7,900 wildfires. And according to Cal Fire, the state's fire activity significantly elevated in mid-August, pushing the state into peak fire season a little earlier than previous years.
It's not unusual to see fires in August; however, fire season in California and across the West is beginning earlier and ending later each year, according to Cal Fire. The length of fire season has increased by about 75 days across the Sierras and seems to correspond with an increase in the extent of forest fires across the state, according to Cal Fire.
"It's not that we're seeing more fire, it's that the fires are able to burn at a bigger size with more destruction," Daniel Berlant, a public information officer for Cal Fire, said in a video in late August.
The National Interagency Fire Center has predicted La Niña conditions for this fall, which could deliver a very arid winter in California. So this fire season could very well persist well into November.
And while Cal Fire has said that 95 percent of wildfires are sparked by human recreational activities, experts and politicians point to the escalation of the overarching issue at hand — climate change.
President Donald Trump begged to differ Monday, saying, "I don't think science knows, actually."
The president visited the Golden State on Monday and told officials that forest management was to blame for the catastrophic fire season, not climate change.
During Monday's fire briefing, Wade Crowfoot, California secretary for Natural Resources, urged Trump to acknowledge California's rising summer and winter climates each year, insisting that the rapid shift needed to be addressed as a key factor in this year's wildfire season.
"That science is going to be key," Crowfoot said to the president. "If we ignore that science and sort of put our head in the sand and think it's all about vegetation management, we're not going to succeed together, protecting Californians."
Trump’s further suggestion, that the planet is going to start to unexpectedly cool, is at odds with reality, experts say.
“Maybe there is a parallel universe where a pot on the stove with the burner turned to high ‘starts getting cooler.’ But that is not our universe,” said Stanford University climate scientist Chris Field.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden lashed at Trump, saying the moment requires “leadership, not scapegoating” and that “it’s clear we are not safe in Donald Trump’s America."
“This is another crisis, another crisis he won’t take responsibility for,” Biden said. He said that if voters give “a climate denier” another four years in the White House, “why would we be surprised that we have more of America ablaze?”
Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, arrived in her home state Tuesday morning to assess the wildfires.
Harris was briefed alongside Gov. Gavin Newsom on the catastrophic 2020 wildfire season at Pine Ridge School in Auberry, California.
"Spent time surveying a burn site with @GavinNewsom in an area that has been devastated by the recent wildfires in California," Harris tweeted Tuesday. "I’m incredibly grateful for the courage of our brave firefighters and those who have come near and far to help those fleeing the destruction."
The community is nestled 30 miles outside of the city of Fresno and was devastated by the Creek Fire, which is the 12th largest in California history, according to Cal Fire. The fire has burned 220,025 acres and was 18 percent contained Wednesday.
The fires are threatening to become another front in Trump’s re-election bid, which is already facing hurdles because of the coronavirus pandemic, joblessness and social unrest. Biden, in his own speech Monday, said the destruction and mounting death toll across California, Oregon and Washington require stronger presidential leadership, and he labeled Trump a “climate arsonist,” The Associated Press reported.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra also weighed in on the topic of climate change Monday, urging that it is a public health emergency.
"The toll of the natural disaster we face from unprecedented wildfires is increasingly measured in human life," Becerra tweeted Monday. "How many wake-up calls do our nation's leaders need to take climate action?"
Our climate emergency is increasingly a public health emergency.
The toll of the natural disaster we face from unprecedented wildfires is increasingly measured in human life.
How many wake-up calls do our nation‘s leaders need to take climate action?
— Xavier Becerra (@AGBecerra) September 14, 2020
Newsom also met Monday with evacuees from the North Complex Fire, where 261,488 acres have burned in the Plumas and Butte counties. Hundreds of people have evacuated from the surrounding communities, and two have died in the blazes.
A Fire Weather Watch was in effect Wednesday in areas of Northeastern California around Modoc National Forest and Tulelake Basin due to gusty winds and low humidity.
Temperatures were expected to be warm Wednesday, tempered slightly by smoke. The state was predicted cool down Friday and through the weekend as the system moves through with some increase in humidity, forecasters said.
Residents of the Golden State were hard-pressed to find refuge from poor air quality and heavily hazed skies anywhere for the past week. Satellite images showed the state almost completely shrouded in smoke from massive wildfires raging across the West Coast.
But the lingering smoke was not expected to clear in some areas for several days.
A Cedars-Sinai lung specialist warned the public Thursday to stay indoors as much as possible to limit exposure to ash and smoke from area wildfires that are causing gloomy skies throughout California.
Dr. Zab Mosenifar, medical director of the Women's Guild Lung Institute at the Los Angeles hospital, said he has detected a "noticeable increase in the last few days" of patients complaining of coughing, shortness of breath and chest tightness.
"It's very unhealthy," he said.
People should stay indoors when they can, close their windows and run their air conditioning, he said. Masks — particularly N95 masks — are also helpful, he said.
#HAPPENINGNOW Dozens of @POTUS supporters line sidewalk at McLellan Field outside Sacramento where the president will attend a @CALFIRE_PIO briefing and meet with @GavinNewsom this morning. #abc7now pic.twitter.com/XT8VrPLJTR
— Laura Anthony (@LauraAnthony7) September 14, 2020
Democratic governors of all three of the Western states with massive fires burning have repeatedly emphasized that rising climates are the reason for this catastrophic wildfire season.
Other politicians — U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — took to Twitter over the weekend to voice their concerns over the "climate crisis" in California as striking photos of orange skies and odd weather surfaced around the web, garnering massive attention.
"The West Coast has been punched over and over again by heat waves and scorching winds that have turned wildfires into infernos and air into sludge," Warren tweeted Sunday. "People made this #ClimateCrisis — and people must fight it now to save our planet."
First responders continued to search for dozens of missing people amid the catastrophic blazes, which have claimed 20 lives.
The August Complex had swelled to 846,812 acres Saturday, becoming the largest wildfire in California's modern history. The burned acreage surpassed the other lightning complex fires as fire officials reclassified several different fires, including the Elkhorn, Hopkins, Willow and Vinegar fires under the August Complex.
As temperatures dropped following a searing heat wave, crews began to make progress on fires that eluded firefighting abilities earlier in the week. Of the 13 new wildfires that cropped up Friday, only one in Siskiyou County burned out of initial control.
While weather conditions have improved immensely since last week, with humidity levels expected to rise in the coming days, Cal Fire warned that "critical fire weather" was expected to return next week.
In light of an understaffed fire season that overwhelmed firefighters, Newsom signed AB 2147 into law, allowing former inmates an opportunity to expunge their records and pursue a career in fire. Those convicted of certain violent or sex crimes will not be eligible.
California officials said the state is facing some of the worst fires to ever impact the West Coast.
"This year’s fire season has been a record-breaking year, in not only the total amount of acres burned, but 6 of the top 20 largest wildfires in California history have occurred in 2020," Cal Fire said in its daily fire briefing memo.
And it's not just the Golden State that's burning.
In Oregon, officials were preparing for a possible "mass fatality event," as dozens of people have gone missing since more than 40,000 people have been evacuated with 500,000 more in different levels of evacuation zones, the Associated Press reported.
In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee said nearly 627,000 acres had burned since Sept. 7, edging the state toward its second-worst fire season on record in less than a week, the Washington Post reported.
The August Complex, which started Aug. 17 during a lightning storm, is now officially the largest fire recorded in California history, according to Cal Fire. The fire was initially 37 separate blazes, but after fire officials reclassified the Elkhorn and Hopkins fires Friday, the complex had collectively burned an astounding 877,477 acres, with 28 percent containment Monday.
It has burned more than 26 structures and caused one known death.
The SCU Lightning Complex, which started Aug. 18, is now the third-largest fire ever in California. It's burned more than 396,624 acres in parts of Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties as of Thursday.
Now the fourth-largest fire in California, the LNU Lightning Complex started Aug. 17, is now the ninth most destructive wildfire in state history. It has burned through parts of Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo and Solano counties. It's burned 363,220 acres. Five people have been killed in that complex, and another five injuries have been reported.
Coming in at the 10th-largest fire is the North Complex, burning in Plumas, Butte and Yuba counties. Three people have died and 10,000 structures have been destroyed in that fire, which started Aug. 18 and has burned 261,488 acres.
Here's more on some of the major fires burning as of Wednesday, via Cal Fire:
Shackleford Fire, Siskiyou County (more info…)
Southwest of Quartz Valley Reservation
*50 acres, 60% contained
LNU Lightning Complex, multiple North Bay counties (more info…)
Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Colusa, Solano, and Yolo Counties
*363,220 acres, 98% contained
*Hennessey (merged fires) 305,651 acres, 96% contained
*Wallbridge 55,209 acres, 95% contained
*1,491 structures destroyed
SCU Lightning Complex, multiple Easy Bay counties (more info…)
Contra Costa, Alameda, Santa Clara San Joaquin, Merced, and Stanislaus Counties
*396,624 acres, 98% contained
*20 fires in the complex, several have merged together
*222 structures destroyed
CZU Lightning Complex, San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties (more info…)
*86,509 acres, 93% contained
*1,490 structures destroyed
Schoolhouse, Siskiyou County (more info…)
Schoolhouse Gap Road, north of Fort Jones
*45 acres, 90% contained
**Unified Command Incidents**
North Complex, Plumas County (more info…)
Southwest of Susanville (Plumas National Forest)
*273,335 acres, 36% contained
*865 Structures destroyed
*Evacuations in place
*Includes the Bear and Claremont Fire
*CAL FIRE Team 4 is in unified command with US Forest Service IMT Team 4
Creek Fire, Fresno County (more info…)
Northeast of Shaver Lake (Sierra National Forest)
*220,025 acres, 18% contained
*Evacuations in effect
*Heavy tree mortality in the area
*CAL FIRE and US Forest Service in unified command
*CAL FIRE Incident Management Team 1 with Great Basin Team 1 in command
El Dorado Fire, San Bernardino County (more info…)
West of Oak Glen (San Bernardino National Forest)
*18,092 acres, 60% contained
*Evacuations in place
*California Interagency Incident Management Team 11 in unified command with CAL FIRE, Yucaipa Fire Department and San Bernardino County Fire Department
Butte/Tehama/Glenn (BTU/TGU) Lightning Complex, multiple Counties (more info…)
Butte, Tehama and Glenn Counties
*19,609 acres, 97% contained
*16 structures destroyed
SQF Complex, Tulare County (more info…)
25 miles north of Kernville (Sequoia National Forest)
*114,320 acres, 12% contained
*Castle and Shotgun Fires merged into this complex
*CAL FIRE Incident Management Team 6 in unified command
Dolan Fire, Monterey County (more info…)
Hwy 1, 10 miles south of Big Sur (Los Padres National Forest)
*122,178 acres, 40% contained
*CAL FIRE is in unified command with Type 1 NW Team 2 (Allen)
**Coordinated Command Incidents**
August Complex, Tehama County (more info…)
Elk Creek and Stonyford area (Mendocino National Forest)
*817,952 acres 30% contained
*South Zone 531,471 acres
*North Zone 244,310 acres
*West Zone 42,171 acres
*Decreased acreage due to mapping by USFS
*Includes multiple fires including the Elkhorn, Hopkins, Willow, Vinegar, and Doe fires
*A California Interagency Incident Management Team and Great Basin Team in command
*CAL FIRE Incident Management Team 3 & 5 are deployed on the West Zone of the complex
Slater Fire, Siskiyou County, (more info…)
5 miles North of Happy Camp (Klamath National Forest)
*137,111 acres, 10% contained
*Evacuation orders in place
Devil Fire, Siskiyou County, (more info…)
5 miles north of Upper Devil’s Peak (Klamath National Forest)
*5,459 acres, 0% contained
Bobcat Fire, Los Angeles County (more info…)
North of Duarte
Angeles National Forest
*44,393 acres, 3% containment
*Evacuations in progress
*EA Silver Team in command
Bullfrog Fire, Fresno County (more info…)
SE of Bullfrog Lake, Sierra National Forest
*900 acres, 0% contained
Fork Fire, El Dorado County, (more info…)
15 miles northeast of Pollock Pines (El Dorado National Forest)
*1,752 acres, 24% contained
*Evacuation orders remain in place
Valley Fire, San Diego County (more info…)
Near Alpine (Cleveland National Forest)
*17,665 acres, 90% contained
*CAIIMT 15 in command
Lake Fire, Los Angeles County (more info…)
Southwest of Lake Hughes
Angeles National Forest / Los Angeles County Fire Department
* 31,089 acres, 96% contained
Apple Fire, Riverside County (more info…)
Oak Glen/Cherry Valley (San Bernardino National Forest)
*33,424 acres, 95% contained
Red Salmon Complex – Humboldt County (more info…)
14 miles northeast of Willow Creek (Shasta-Trinity National Forest)
*95,210 acres, 17% contained
Blue Jay Fire, Mariposa County (more info…)
Yosemite National Park Wilderness
*3,132 acres, 20% contained
Wolf Fire, Tuolumne County (more info…)
Yosemite National Park Wilderness
*624 acres, 10% contained
Woodward Fire, Marin County (more info…)
3 miles southwest of Olema (Point Reyes National Seashore)
*4,920 acres, 96% contained
Slink Fire, Mono County (more info…)
2 miles west of Coleville (Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest)
*26,752 acres, 71% contained
Moraine, Tulare County (more info…)
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Wilderness
*575 acres, 70% contained
Rattlesnake, Tulare County (more info…)
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Wilderness
*1,596 acres, 0% contained