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Record-Setting Blazes Continue To Rip Through Northern California

Flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fire leap above a road Sunday as firefighters work to contain the blaze in Lake County, Calif.
Flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fire leap above a road Sunday as firefighters work to contain the blaze in Lake County, Calif.

Updated at 8:01 p.m. ET

California Gov. Gavin Newsom offered a litany of devastating statistics Monday as hundreds of thousands of acres continue to burn across California in some of the largest wildfires in state history.

"Foundationally and fundamentally we're at a point [where] every resource at our disposal, every resource that we have within the state, is being used" to battle the wildfires, Newsom said, his voice weary during a daily news conference.

More fires with more devastating effects

Newsom stressed the disastrous and historic scale of this year's fires so early in the season.

He noted that a year ago about 56,000 acres had been burned by 4,292 wildfires in the state. "To date over 7,002 wildfires [have burned] more than 1.4 million acres," he said. That's an area more than three times bigger than the city of Los Angeles and more than 6 1/2 times the size of Chicago.

At the moment, California is battling roughly 625 concurrent wildfires across the state, including a number of new fires that appeared overnight.

In the last 24 hours, close to 300 lightning strikes have hit the Northern California region, and 10 new fires have been ignited. However, officials suspect there are several individual "sleeper fires" that have yet to be discovered due to the inaccessible nature of the terrain, the governor said.

More than 1,200 structures have been destroyed, though Newsom said, "There is no question there are more structures that have been damaged."

Meanwhile, the crushing heat continues to pose challenges to firefighters, especially in the eastern part of the state. And the northern part is bracing for high winds, with lightning that threatens to spark new blazes.

On all sides of the San Francisco Bay Area, the three largest blazes — caused by clusters of wildfires — are burrowing through forest and rural areas mostly uncontained, officials said.

Part of the reason, Newsom told reporters, is that in many cases the blazes are tearing through regions that have not seen any fire activity in more than 100 years. That is the case in the coastal mountain areas around Santa Cruz, where flames are engulfing redwood trees.

The governor called it proof that "we are in a different climate and we are dealing with different climate conditions that are precipitating the fires, the likes of which we haven't seen in modern recorded history."

Scorching heat and lightning strikes offer little reprieve

Most of Northern California remains under a " red flag warning" through Tuesday morning. The National Weather Service is calling for high temperatures, low humidity and "erratic" wind gusts of up to 40 mph to 50 mph that could blow around existing fires.

Over the past week, more than 13,000 dry lightning strikes sparked more than 600 fires that were elevated by dry conditions in a parched California terrain.

At least seven people have died as of this weekend when authorities discovered the body of a 70-year-old man in the remote Santa Cruz mountains area known as Last Chance.

Firefighters struggle to extinguish complex fires

The fire known as the CZU August Lightning Complex is scorching some 78,000 acres across San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties and has destroyed at least 231 structures. As of Monday afternoon, officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said the blaze is only 13% contained.

Complex fires consist of several separate fires spread across a specific geographic region.

The largest of the three fire complexes, the LNU Lightning Complex, is covering more than 350,000 acres near the Napa Valley, making it the second-largest fire in state history. It has killed at least four people and destroyed 871 structures.

With only 22% of the blaze contained, Cal Fire officials are expecting the LNU Lightning Complex to spread as "fires continue to make runs in multiple directions, impacting multiple communities," according to a statement Monday morning.

In Santa Clara and Alameda counties, another series of fires that make up the SCU Lightning Complex has grown to more than 347,000 acres, Cal Fire reported. That fire is 10% contained.

Progress is made in Southern California

In Southern California, firefighters battling rough terrain, hot weather and potential thunderstorms kept an 11-day-old blaze steady at just under 50 square miles near Lake Hughes in the Los Angeles County mountains. Over the weekend, crews made significant progress combating the flames and have managed to contain 62% of the fire, Newsom reported.

California's full resources have been deployed

The governor on Monday reiterated that the state is tapped out on the resources available to put an end to the infernos.

More than 14,000 firefighting personnel from across the state are working to extinguish the flames, Newsom said. While a substantial number of out-of-state crews have already joined the ranks of in-state firefighters, even more are expected to arrive from Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico, Texas, Oregon, Utah and Washington as well as some National Guard troops from Kansas.

The governor has also requested an additional 375 engines to bolster those on the ground.

Evacuees contend with a new set of challenges

As the fires force more residents to flee, some evacuated homes have been burglarized. At least 13 people have been arrested on suspicion of looting or planning to loot in Santa Cruz County, officials said.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also complicating evacuation orders as officials scramble to find space for residents who were forced from their homes. As NPR's Lauren Sommer reported, many evacuees are being sent to hotels to allow for social distancing in shelters.

More than 2,200 people have been evacuated as of Monday morning, the governor said. Of those, nearly 1,500 have been housed in hotels.

Others are struggling to find shelter after being financially devastated by the pandemic. Earlier this week, Tina Marie Carini, her husband and two sons had to flee from their trailer in north Santa Cruz County.

Both she and her husband are out of work and concerned about recovering financially now that the wildfires have struck their neighborhood, Carini told KQED's Hannah Hagemann. The family has had to move three times in the past week.

"We're just hoping we don't lose everything, and we're tired of running," Carini said. "We're just so tired."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.