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California burns as heatwave spreads across western US

By Melody Gutierrez, Summer Lin, Brittny Mejia, Grace Toohey and Jireh Deng

Los Angeles Times

OROVILLE, Calif. – Firefighters continue to battle wildfires across the state as Californians brace for triple-digit temperatures and a dangerous, sustained heat wave that is forecast to last into next week.

The most concerning fire on Wednesday was the Thompson Fire in Oroville, which destroyed several buildings and forced thousands to evacuate as flames approached communities.

Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency on Wednesday because of the fire, pointing out that “buildings, homes, critical infrastructure, and health and care facilities” were at risk.

“We are using every tool available to fight this fire and will continue to work closely with our local and federal partners to support the affected communities,” Newsom said in a statement.

The Thompson Fire tripled in size overnight from 1,000 acres to more than 3,500 acres by Wednesday afternoon and was still 0% contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The fire was spreading in two directions: north toward more rural areas and south toward more homes and businesses.

Four firefighters were injured, but further details were not available.

Winds from the north are driving the flames further toward Kelly Ridge, a densely populated neighborhood east of Lake Oroville where most of the evacuees live, said Rick Carhart, spokesman for the Cal Fire station in Butte County.

Among them were Don and Linda Pederson, who said the recent fire would not stop them from entering their property.

“This isn’t the first time this has happened,” said 81-year-old Don.

But never before has a fire come this close to the home they have lived in for 50 years. The house sits on a 1,000-square-foot lot east of the Oroville Dam and has been in Linda's family since 1945. He said he believes the fire was about a mile away at its closest point, but they had no plans to evacuate unless it crossed Highway 162.

The Pedersons' home is in a mandatory evacuation area, although he said his garage is clearly in the mandatory evacuation zone according to the fire map.

“The line runs through my house,” he said, chuckling. “Even if our whole house was in the evacuation zone, we wouldn't leave unless I knew it was on our side of the street and coming down the hill.” He added that they have electricity and a generator for the whole house as a backup.

“Yesterday I could actually see flames in the distance,” he said. “We didn't evacuate, even though the police were walking up and down the street with loudspeakers and going door to door shouting, 'Get out!' But we decided to stay.”

He said he is currently watching the fire from their home with his wife, Linda, 79, and has set aside some important papers in case they need to leave quickly. Their property has been mowed to create a defensive zone to ward off moving embers, he said, and their two vehicles are parked away from their home in case it catches fire. There are two fire hydrants next to their property.

“The wind is not particularly strong, but it is picking up,” he said. “And I've seen quite a bit of smoke.”

The Feather River initially stopped the fire from spreading south from its origins at Cherokee Road and Thompson Flat Road, but as the fire gained strength, it managed to jump the river.

“This fire was burning in a mixture of grass and thick brush,” Carhart said. “The fire [spread] by flying pieces of embers that flew over the water and then landed on the other side.”

According to official figures, around 12,000 homes, businesses and other buildings are under threat and 28,000 people have been asked to evacuate their homes. Four houses have already been destroyed.

“By the way, there are a number of people in the area who have moved [to Kelly Ridge] after they burned out in the Camp Fire,” Carhart said, referring to the 2018 blaze that killed 85 people and destroyed more than 18,000 structures, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire ever recorded in California.

Crews fought the Thompson Fire under extreme heat and hazard warnings.

Due to the severe heat wave in California, temperatures of up to 46 degrees were forecast on Thursday, and on Saturday it was 46 degrees in Oroville. Wind gusts on Wednesday were about 24 to 32 kilometers per hour near the fire.

Relative humidity was below 20 percent around the fire on Wednesday. Temperatures are expected to recover overnight to between -2 and 5 degrees Celsius, according to meteorologist Kate Forrest of the National Weather Service's Sacramento office.

From Monday onwards it will be relatively cooler. The forecast is for 41 to 42 degrees.

“It is unusual to experience heat of this magnitude so early in July, with temperatures 10 to 20 degrees higher than normal,” she added.

The heat wave could potentially break the record of seven consecutive days of highs above 100 degrees in downtown Sacramento, Forrest said. Daily temperature records could also be broken at Sacramento International Airport and in Redding.

In the Los Angeles region, high temperatures in the San Fernando Valley are expected to reach between 38 and 42 degrees Celsius next week. In downtown Los Angeles, temperatures could reach up to 32 degrees Celsius, and near the beach it could even be around 27 degrees, according to NWS meteorologist Mike Wofford.

Temperature records for that date could be broken Friday in Woodland Hills (where the current temperature was 41 degrees Celsius on July 5), Burbank (38 degrees Celsius), LA International Airport (28 degrees Celsius) and Long Beach (32 degrees Celsius), Wofford said.

Cooling is expected from Sunday to Monday, but temperatures in the valleys are still expected to be in the three-digit range and over 30 degrees in the city center.

“This heat wave is notable for its length,” Wofford added. “Often we have heat waves that last two, three, four or five days, but this one lasts seven or eight days, especially inland. It's the duration that's remarkable.”

Record-breaking and dangerous heat is looming not only across California and the West during the week of July 4, but also across the Southern Plains and Mid-Atlantic region. A heat warning or watch is in effect for 110 million people in 21 states, according to a forecast released Wednesday morning by the National Weather Service's Weather Prediction Center (NWSD).

A “Red Flag Warning” — a warning of extreme fire weather — remains in effect across much of Northern California, according to the National Weather Service, due to a combination of winds up to 30 miles per hour, low humidity and high temperatures that “may contribute to extreme fire behavior.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced in a statement Wednesday that it had approved federal funds to assist in fighting the Thompson Fire.

Given the conditions in its service area, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. initiated the first safety power shutoffs this year, affecting just over 2,000 customers in eight counties — Butte, Colusa, Lake, Napa, Solano, Sonoma, Tehama and Yolo. The shutoffs, which began Tuesday, lasted until noon Wednesday, according to the utility. The measure is intended to prevent the utility's equipment from starting fires under dangerous conditions.

In Napa County, the Toll Fire broke out just before 10 a.m. Tuesday north of Calistoga and spread to about 50 acres, according to Cal Fire.

The wind-driven fire closed at least one road in the area and prompted several evacuation orders and warnings. Just over 100 people were affected, according to Jason Clay, a Cal Fire spokesman at the Sonoma-Lake-Napa station. As of Wednesday morning, crews had brought the fire 20% under control.

Conditions in the region are favorable for the outbreak of further wildfires, Clay said.

“The grasses are really dry,” said Clay, who noted the red flag warning in the area. “This combination all fits together, [and] this could lead to extreme fire behaviour.”

Fire officials continue to warn that increased wildfires could occur when vegetation dries out completely – which typically happens by mid-summer – as a lot of grass and brush has grown after two winters of heavy rainfall.

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, said it was “essentially inevitable” that wildfires would continue to occur and spread during the heat wave – which had only just begun – given the threat of further fires from the holiday weekend's fireworks and firecrackers, high temperatures and the buildup of dry fuels.

“It's honestly a pretty bad combination to have a potentially record-breaking heat wave starting with dry northerly winds,” Swain said in a briefing Monday. “Buckle up: I think California's fire season is likely to get significantly worse in the next five to seven days.”

In eastern San Diego County, another major fire continued to spread since Monday. The McCain Fire, which burned right next to Interstate 8, was 50% contained as of Wednesday afternoon. According to Cal Fire, it had consumed 1,362 acres of land. The fire had prompted several evacuation orders and warnings and affected about 140 people, according to Mike Cornette, fire captain of the Cal Fire team in San Diego County.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but Cornette said the blaze was likely sparked by a traffic accident that caused a vehicle to burst into flames. He said about 150 buildings were threatened, but none were damaged.

Two other smaller fires also broke out in Northern California on Tuesday: the Denverton Fire in Solano County and the Yolla Fire in Shasta County, both of which were less than 30 acres in size as of Wednesday afternoon.

Crews were also battling the Basin Fire on Wednesday, which had burned 13,819 acres in the Sierra National Forest in Fresno County. It was 26% contained, according to Cal Fire.

The fire is raging not far from Balch Camp, a remote community where more than 150 people were evacuated because of the flames. PG&E has power infrastructure there, but a spokesman for the utility said none of its facilities had been affected as of Tuesday morning.