A chimney is left standing amid the ruins of a wildfire-ravaged home enveloped by the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire, Aug. 21, 2020, in Bonny Doon, Calif.
A chimney is left standing amid the ruins of a wildfire-ravaged home enveloped by the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire, Aug. 21, 2020, in Bonny Doon, Calif.

At least six people have died and 175,000 have been forced to flee their homes because of wildfires raging through California, some of them the largest blazes in the state’s history.

The fires have burned more than 771,000 acres (3,120 square kilometers) since August 15, Jeremy Rahn, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said Friday at a news briefing. That’s larger than the state of Rhode Island, authorities said.

More than 12,000 firefighters were working to contain the 560 fires, including about two dozen major fires, sparked since last weekend. Most of the blazes were concentrated in Northern California.

The largest fires, the SCU and LNU lightning complexes, were 10% and 7% contained as of Friday morning.

Thomas Henney, left, and Charles Chavira watch a plume spread over Healdsburg, Calif., as the LNU Lightning Complex fires burn, Aug. 20, 2020.

“These two fires represent two of the 20 largest fires the state of California has had to battle in recent memory, arguably in modern recorded history,” Governor Gavin Newsom said at Friday’s briefing. The SCU Lightning Complex is the seventh largest, while the LNU is the 10th largest.

Victims

Among the dead were three people found Wednesday in a burned Napa County home; their remains were recovered Thursday. Also found dead Wednesday was a man in Solano County, a Pacific Gas and Electric crewman and a pilot on a water-dropping mission in Fresno County, who died when his helicopter crashed.

An additional 43 firefighters and civilians have been injured, and 500 homes and other buildings have been reported destroyed.

Cal Fire lifted some evacuation orders Friday, but the department added more in other areas. Cal Fire Incident Commander Chief Sean Kavanaugh said at the briefing that this was a sign of how large the fires have grown.

“That’s something we normally don’t do,” he said, referring to the simultaneous lifting and adding of orders. “We’re spread out in such a large geographical area that we have different fire behavior. We have different levels of containment.”

Heed orders, authorities say

Local authorities urged residents to listen to evacuation orders, both to protect themselves and to stay out of firefighters’ way. Some civilian firefighting efforts have required rescue operations, diverting resources.

Members of the Glendale, Calif., Fire Department hose down hot spots along Empire Grade Road after the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire went through, Aug. 21, 2020, in Bonny Doon, Calif.

“We want you to leave when you’ve been ordered to evacuate,” Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said at the briefing. Not only are evacuation zones dangerous, he said, but “evacuation zones have active firefighting efforts going on, and you remaining in those areas could hamper firefighting efforts.”

Cal Fire Unit Chief Shana Jones told residents to have an evacuation plan ready.

“You shouldn’t wait to be told,” she said. “You should have a plan right now.”

Help from outside

Newsom said the state was working with the federal government to declare a federal disaster, which would help in securing more resources. California also requested help from both Australia and Canada, he said, and was in talks with governors from 10 other states through a mutual aid system. He thanked governors from Arizona, Oregon and Washington for sending fire engines and surveillance equipment, alongside Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Texas and Utah.

However, a Cal Fire spokesperson said that only 45 of the 375 out-of-state fire crews requested by the state had arrived, Reuters reported.

Many of the California fires were sparked by a series of lightning strikes earlier this week, totaling close to 12,000 in just three days. In a video Friday, Cal Fire Assistant Deputy Director Daniel Berlant warned that wildfire authority was “remaining on high alert” for more dry lightning storms, which could hit Monday and Tuesday.