Clusters of wildfires continue to rip through Northern California and Anaheim, propelled by powerful winds and dry conditions. Seventeen fires are currently charring more than 220,000 acres across the region, leaving at least 31 dead.
The Tubbs fire has burned through 34,000 acres and is currently 25 percent contained, while the Atlas Peak fire, now 48,000 acres strong, has 27 percent containment. The nearby Nuns Fire, which has destroyed 14,000 acres, is 5 percent contained and is part of a complex which includes the Pocket, Adobe, Norbbom and Pressley fires.
How did this happen?
The fires began Sunday and grew within a matter of hours, prompting thousands to flee. Some of the largest blazes have burned through through Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties in Northern California. The speed of the blaze took fire officials by surprise, burning through 20,000 acres in 12 hours on Monday night. Further south, residents of Anaheim Hills and Orange County were also forced to evacuate as a brush fire, now 25 percent contained, burned through 7,500 acres and destroyed 24 structures.
The intensity of the Napa firestorm over a span of a few hours make it one of the worst in the state’s history.
Though the cause of these fires aren’t yet known, research continues to find human activity to blame for a majority of nationwide fires. From leftover campfires to wayward fireworks, it is said that up to 84 percent of fires are human caused.
What’s the damage?
Officials told media outlets at least 17 people died in the fires and more than 1,500 homes and business have been destroyed.
As of Monday, more than 100 people were also injured by the fires, officials told CNN. Most patients were treated for smoke inhalation. The destroyed businesses include at least two wineries in Napa and Sonoma Counties, the Associated Press reported.
Santa Rosa, home to 175,000 people, saw some of the worst damage. Some residents told The New York Times, they “couldn’t even find the street” to their neighborhood once the fire had burnt through the area.
Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano reported Thursday that the total number of missing persons had reached 900, although some may be duplicate reports, and 437 have been found safe. Cell service problems are fueling the number of missing person’s reports.
What officials are saying
Cal Fire incident commander Ron Bravo told reporters in a Tuesday morning press conference in Mendocino County that the situation is “dynamic,” and called for residents of the area to be prepared for evacuation as conditions continue to evolve.
“I just don’t want you guys to believe that this fight is done, ’cause it’s not,” Bravo said. “We’ve got a lot of work left to do.”
Amy Head, spokesperson for Cal Fire told The Guardian that this multiplicity of fires is “unprecedented,” adding that the majority of the fires started within the same period of time Sunday evening.
“It’s not under control by any means,” California Gov. Jerry Brown said of containment efforts Tuesday.
Why it’s important
October is considered Northern California’s worst month of the fire season due to the combination of dry conditions and heavy winds, or “diablo winds,” that are a hallmark of the area. Heather Williams, spokesperson for Cal Fire, said an active rainy season provided an abundance of vegetation that proceeds to dry out around this time of year. Dry plants provide fuel for fires to grow quickly, especially when strong winds can carry flames over larger distances rapidly.
The western U.S. has experienced a record fire season this year,with nearly 40 active fires engaging more than 4,000 fire personnel nationwide, according to the latest report from the National Interagency Coordination Center.
As of last month, fire suppression costs exceeded $2 billion for federal government, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said. The same report also said that during the peak of this year’s fire season “there were three times as many uncontained large fires on the landscape as compared to the five-year average.”
But, as Stateline pointed out, states affected by wildfires have to also spend millions for recovery efforts that often leave budgets imbalanced. When fires earlier this year burned through a million acres in Montana, the cost contributed to a $200 million budget shortfall for the state. Calling it Montana’s “most expensive fire season in state history,” Gov. Steve Bullock said in a September statement.
Brown urged President Donald Trump to declare a major disaster in a request issued Monday, calling the damage “extraordinary.” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders confirmed Tuesday afternoon that Mr. Trump has approved Gov. Brown’s request for major disaster declaration and has also ordered federal aid be sent to supplement aid efforts.
During press briefings in Sonoma and Napa counties on Thursday, fire and county authorities were optimistic about the progress being made but warned that bad weather is still threatening wildfire growth. As of Friday, 60 mph winds threaten to make containment efforts difficult.
Congressman Mike Thompson (D-Calif.). said 900 additional fire personnel were on their way to serve Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties, with additional help expected from Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. When asked which fire is most concerning to authorities, Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said it’s about “which part of which fire” is most threatening. Activity east of Napa, the Tubbs fire and numerous cities in Sonoma are still at risk.
Although the cause of the fires are being actively investigated, Biermann said he is unaware of the status of those investigations at this time.
Williams told the NewsHour that winds have died down since the peak of the fire’s spread, hopefully allowing “significant progress to be made.” Williams also said that the three largest are fires are not currently contained. However, the second largest fire, Atlas, has not continued to grow as of this afternoon and Williams said they remain optimistic that “firefighters can keep increasing containment.” She said it is too soon to tell when the crisis will abate completely.
Evacuation orders and road closures remain in effect in affected counties. California authorities have brought in additional fire personnel from other areas of the state, and have requested crews from U.S. Forest Service in Nevada.