Deadly fires carve a path of destruction across California

A home burns during the Bear fire, part of the North Lightning Complex fires in the Berry Creek area of unincorporated Butte County, Calif. on Wednesday. Dangerous dry winds whipped up California’s record-breaking wildfires and ignited new blazes, as hundreds were evacuated by helicopter and tens of thousands were plunged into darkness by power outages across the western United States. Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images/TNS

LOS ANGELES — A dozen people are still missing as crews work desperately to rein in a massive fire around Oroville, one of dozens of major blazes in a ferocious and deadly firestorm raging across California.

The residents were reported missing in the area of the North Complex fire, which mushroomed this week into an inferno that already has been blamed for three deaths.

The massive complex of fires, which includes the Bear fire, has scorched more than 252,000 acres and forced some 20,000 residents in Plumas, Butte and Yuba counties from their homes.

The North Complex was one of the fires that exploded in size this week as record-high temperatures and strong winds beset the state. Those blazes raced through the northern Sierra Nevada foothills before dawn Wednesday — catching crews and residents off-guard.

The incident is now the ninth-largest wildfire in California history. Four of the state’s biggest wildfires were started by the same August lightning storm.

The Dolan fire, which ignited Aug. 18 north of Limekiln State Park in Monterey County, has also seen extreme growth this week.

Officials said the combination of high temperatures, dry fuels and wind combined to more than triple the size of the fire, to more than 110,000 acres.

The fire also has spread to Army Fort Hunter Liggett, though that property has not been forced to evacuate, officials said.

The unprecedented firestorm prompted the U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday to temporarily close all national forests in California.

So far this year, 7,657 fires have scorched more than 2.5 million acres statewide, said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. That’s an increase of more than 2,000 percent over this time last year.

Another significant blaze in the state is the massive Creek fire, which has chewed through more than 175,000 acres, destroyed an estimated 360 structures and prompted widespread evacuations in the Sierra.

At nearly 20,000 acres and 0% containment, the Bobcat fire burning in the San Gabriel Mountains above Monrovia has been updated to a “Type 1” incident, Forest Service officials said Thursday morning.

The change reflects the fire’s increasing challenges and need for more personnel and equipment.

“Potential size and potential complexity” were both factors in the transition, according to Forest Service representative Micah Bell.

“I’ve actually seen Type 1 teams handle fires that were barely 2,000 acres, but it was the complexity of managing it that requires a bigger team,” Bell said.

Though the fire has swelled significantly — nearly doubling in size Wednesday — much of the growth was in its northeastern portion, Bell said, away from threatened foothill communities.

Six areas remain under an evacuation warning: Duarte, Bradbury, Monrovia, Sierra Madre, Pasadena and Altadena.

Crews have made some progress containing some of the other sizable blazes burning throughout the state.

The El Dorado fire, near Yucaipa, was 12,610 acres and 23% contained as of Thursday morning, while the Valley fire, southeast of Alpine in San Diego County near the Mexican border, was 17,665 acres and 32% contained, according to Cal Fire.

Officials are also reporting 15% containment for the 1,300-acre Willow fire, which sparked north of Smartsville in Yuba County Wednesday. That fire has destroyed 30 structures, according to Cal Fire, while 700 others are considered threatened.

With fires raging throughout the West Coast, the skies over California have taken an apocalyptic turn — choking the air with ash and smoke in some regions, while snuffing out sunlight in others. Rarely have so many Californians breathed such unhealthy air.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District is warning that smoke and ash are likely to hit much of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties Thursday due to two major fires locally and smoke flowing in from Northern California blazes.

The air district’s smoke advisory said that most of the Southern California region will be affected by smoke, with the highest readings of fine-particle pollution, tiny lung-damaging particles known as PM2.5, in areas closest to the Bobcat and El Dorado fires.

Smoke blowing in from Northern California “may also contribute to widespread elevated PM2.5 concentrations,” the air district said, but due to shifting winds, the smoke impacts “will be highly variable in both space and time.”

The air district said to expect “noticeable smoke and ash impacts” in southwest Los Angeles County, Orange County and southwest Riverside County.

The bad air is being generated by fires raging in California, Oregon and Washington that are lofting smoke into the air in a massive plume that is blanketing the entire West Coast and extends far out into the Pacific.

But in Southern California much of that smoke has remained aloft. At the ground level, air quality across remained in the “good” to “moderate” range Thursday morning across most of the region, except for areas in near the Bobcat Fire burning in the Angeles National Forest north of Azusa and Glendora and the El Dorado Fire is currently burning in the San Bernardino Mountains near Yucaipa, where readings showed air quality in the “unhealthy” range.

Air quality has been significantly worse in Northern California, where raging fires this week have choked the air with smoke and ash and snuffed out the sunlight, casting a gloomy, orange pall over San Francisco and other areas. Air monitoring data on Thursday morning showed unhealthy pollution levels in most of San Francisco and in other parts of the Bay Area.

Tribune Wire

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