At least 5 dead in massive California wildfires; more than 60,000 flee, thousands of homes threatened

Thousands of people remained under evacuation orders in regions around the San Francisco Bay Area on Thursday as wildfires blazed across the state amid a blistering heat wave now in its second week.

In all, according to Cal Fire, more than 60,000 California residents have evacuated because of fires that are burning about 780 square miles across the state. That’s an area equal to about half the size of Rhode Island.

Statewide, as of Thursday evening, officials said the fires have destroyed 175 structures, including homes, and are threatening 50,000 more. In all, 33 civilians and firefighters have been injured, and at least five people have died.

Daniel Berlant, an assistant deputy director with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said three people had died in Napa County and one in Solano County since the fires began. In central California, a pilot on a water-dropping mission in western Fresno County died Wednesday morning when his helicopter crashed.

The blaze has burned more than 480 buildings, including some homes, and threatens 30,000 others. The LNU Lightning Complex was the largest fire burning in California on Thursday, according to Cal Fire.

The 62 square mile CZU August Lightning Complex Fire in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties raced through Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California’s oldest state park, Santa Cruz County officials confirmed on Twitter Thursday. The fire damaged the park’s headquarters, historic core, and campgrounds. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also announced Thursday that they will reimburse California 75% of whatever it spends on battling the LNU Lightning Complex Fire and the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.

The grants will “help ensure the availability of vital resources” while battling the fires, according to the office of Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Berlant said Thursday that in the past four days, there have been over 370 new wildfires, and still nearly two dozen major fires burning across the state.

These fires have been sparked by nearly 11,000 lightning strikes, he said, and strong winds, hot temperatures, and low humidity have fanned them.

More than 10,000 firefighters are on the front lines, but fire officials in charge of each of the major fire complexes say they are strapped for resources. Some firefighters were working 72-hour shifts instead of the usual 24 hours. The state has requested 375 engines and crew from other states.

In Marin County, just north of San Francisco, where a smaller fire is burning near the Pacific Ocean, county fire chief Jason Weber said he is waiting for assistance from Montana to arrive this weekend.

He said in his 25 years in fire service, “we’ve never seen this level of draw-down” from cooperating agencies, as there is heavy competition in the western United States for equipment and people.

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