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Historic Wildfires, Second And Third Largest On Record, Are Ripping Through California
WRIGHTWOOD, CA - AUGUST 18: Flames spread up a hillside near firefighters at the Blue Cut Fire on August 18, 2016 near Wrightwood, California.. An unknown number of homes and businesses have burned and more than 80,000 people were ordered to evacuate as the wildfire spreads beyond 30,000 acres and threatens to expand into the ski resort town of Wrightwood. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
David McNew/Getty Images

California firefighters are struggling to contain two of the largest blazes ever recorded in the state after days of high temperatures and little moisture created an environment set for disaster.

The state is currently experiencing one of its worst fire seasons on record as more than 7,000 fires have burned through more than 1.4 million acres. Roughly half of the destruction is due to two fire clusters, the LNU Lightning Complex and SCU Lightning Complex, that have together burned more than 700,000 acres.

The LNU, the third largest fire recorded in the state, is concentrated in California’s wine country north of Napa. Firefighters have made some progress getting a handle on the fire, which started about a week ago, since favorable weather conditions came over the area over the weekend. Still, the fire is little more than a quarter contained and has so far killed 5 people while damaging or destroying roughly 1,200 structures, according to the California state fire agency Cal Fire.

The SCU, the slightly larger of the two at nearly 364,000 acres and the second largest in the state ever, has been significantly less deadly and destructive, though it is only 15% contained. The SCU is located in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco and has killed no one and has damaged or destroyed a couple dozen structures, according to Cal Fire.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom addressed the wildfires ravaging the state in a Monday press briefing, saying that the state is throwing everything it can at the blazes, as well as getting help from neighboring states, according to KPIX 5.

“We’re currently battling some 625 fires across the state and you’ll see in a moment a number of new fires appeared overnight. We’ve burned 1.2 million acres in just the last week or so,” Newsom said. For comparison, less than a quarter of a million acres burned in all of 2019, though that followed a particularly deadly and destructive 2018 when nearly 1.7 million acres burned.

The past week’s fires have been largely due to lightning storms across the state sparking fires in intensely dry areas, according to UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain.

“Over 11,000 strikes were recorded over northern California over a 36 hour period, and many of these occurred pretty close to the coast (though some did extend inland over the Sacramento Valley and its foothills),” Swain wrote in a blog post Friday. “As feared, unusually dry vegetation following an extremely dry winter and in the midst of a record heatwave acted as tinder–and many of these lightning strikes ignited wildfires.”

“Smoke from these fires has inundated every corner of California,” Swain added. “Some places have been reporting measurable ashfall and large burned debris (leaves and twigs) raining from the sky. Extensive smoke from these California fires have blanketed much of the continental United States.”

Firefighters have evacuated thousands of people in danger of losing their homes to the wildfires in an effort to avoid a similar catastrophe as what happened to Paradise, CA, in 2018. Blown by strong winds, the Camp Fire, the most destructive wildfire in California’s history, swept through the town on November 8 and killed 85 people.

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