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Extreme heat, strong winds and intense lightning create California tinder box

California has suffered a devastating week, with a blistering heat wave, intense lightning storms and raging wildfires overwhelming firefighters and forcing residents to evacuate in the middle of a pandemic. Gov. Gavin Newsom says the state’s resources are being pushed to their breaking point. Meanwhile, thick smoke is causing dangerous air pollution in San Francisco. Stephanie Sy reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The speaker's home state of California has suffered a devastating week, a blistering heat wave, intense lightning storms, and now far too many wildfires, all of it taxing overwhelmed firefighters and residents who are being forced to evacuate in the middle of the pandemic.

    Stephanie Sy has the story.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Thick smoke blanketed parts of Northern California for another day, as ferocious wildfires threatened thousands of homes in their path.

    Firefighters are struggling to get them under control. The steep terrain, tinder-dry brush, and scorching heat are complicating their efforts. Amid gusty winds, a helicopter pilot on a water-dropping mission died when he crashed in Western Fresno County yesterday, the first known fire-related fatality.

    Crews are simultaneously battling more than two dozen major fires across the state, from Wine Country and communities surrounding the San Francisco Bay Area on down to Southern California, and smaller blazes are flaring up.

    Many of the fires were sparked by an unprecedented amount of lightning earlier this week. Nearly 11,000 lightning strikes were reported in a span of just 72 hours. The extraordinary conditions were triggered by severe thunderstorms, coupled with hot desert air from Arizona and Nevada and moisture from a tropical storm off the coast of Mexico.

    John Gardiner described the terrifying scene near his home in Vacaville, about 35 miles southwest of Sacramento.

  • John Gardiner:

    Just eerie. You know, you could hear this swirling, swishing of air just going crazy and explosions going off. And it almost sounded like bombs.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Overall, authorities estimate hundreds of thousands of acres have already been burned, along with nearly 200 structures, including homes.

    Firefighters have not been able to contain the blazes much yet. And in two counties, the fire grew by 15,000 acres overnight. Thousands of people have now been ordered to evacuate.

    Victoria Gregorch was one of them. She fled Tuesday night, when a fierce blaze came barreling towards her neighborhood.

  • Victoria Gregorch:

    It was coming up over the hill back behind me, and just raging, and in a big red line, and just coming quick, coming down the street.

    The first house was on fire, and then my neighbor's house was on fire, and it was gone. And I was — thought for sure mine was gone, but it's not.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    All this as residents are contending with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and a dangerous triple-digit heat wave.

  • Woman:

    Who would have thought that 2020 would be like this? It's just insane. So, just hug your family. Tell people you love them, and stay safe.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The extreme heat is straining the state's energy supplies, leading to rolling power outages. California's main power grid operator is urging residents and businesses to conserve energy to avoid further blackouts.

    To make matters worse, the air quality has become dangerous in San Francisco, with ash and smoke from at least seven fires burning to its north, east, and south.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.

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