Aided by weather and reinforcements, firefighters were cautiously optimistic Tuesday as they struggled to pen in California wildfires that have killed at least seven people and burned more than 1,200 homes and other buildings.
Weather conditions for firefighters have improved significantly since a bizarre Aug. 15 storm fed by moisture from a former tropical storm off Mexico hurled thousands of lightning bolts that ignited three huge clusters of fires north, east and south of San Francisco Bay.
Firefighters in wine country north of San Francisco had created containment lines — used to prevent fires from spreading — around 29% of the LNU Lightning Complex blaze, which had scorched more than 550 square miles (1,424 square kilometers) and destroyed more than 930 buildings.
To the east of the San Francisco Bay area, there were containment lines around 15% of the SCU Lightning Complex fires that have charred more than 568 square miles (1,471 square kilometers) and destroyed 18 structures.
And to the south, officials said progress was made against the CZU Lightning Complex fire in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties. The 123-square-mile (318.5-square-kilometer) fire was 17% surrounded after destroying 330 structures. Some 25,000 buildings were still threatened.
“The past couple days we've seen significant progress in our firefight on this incident," said Mark Brunton, operations chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which is known as Cal Fire. “The weather's really cooperating with us."
Helicopters dropped 200,000 gallons (over 757,082 litres) of water on the blaze, he said, calling it “the best day yet.”
In addition to better weather, fire crews along with bulldozers and other equipment were arriving from other states.
But officials warned the danger was far from over and admonished residents to stay out of evacuated areas. Six people who returned to a restricted area south of San Francisco to check on their properties were surprised by fire and had to be rescued, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office said. Looters have been warned they’ll be arrested, and some people have been taken into custody, including a man found with $5,000 in his car, authorities said. Detectives were also investigating seven reports of missing people.
Evacuees tempted to return to check on their homes should think again, fire officials said.
“It is highly dangerous in there still,” Jonathan Cox, a Cal Fire deputy chief, of the blaze north of Santa Cruz. “We have bridges that have failed, old wooden bridges that have failed that may not appear failed to people that they may drive on. It is not safe,” he said.
An estimated 170,000 people are under evacuation orders and tens of thousands of homes remain under threat from fires around the state. Some orders were reduced to warnings Monday.
Elinor Slayer fled her home in the redwood-dotted mountain town of Boulder Creek north of Santa Cruz on Tuesday evening along with her four children when they started seeing burnt leaves and large pieces of ash.
“Luckily for me, I have a 13-year-old daughter who is very cautious about wildfires. We had bags packed already,” said Slayer, 48. “We hadn’t gotten an evacuation order yet but my daughter said, ‘It’s time to go.’”
The family is counting their blessings that everyone is safe and hoping their home is, too, Slayer said.
“We don’t know what we’re going to return to,” Slayer said.
An Associated Press reporter and photographer hiked the renowned Redwood Trail at Big Basin Redwoods State Park on Monday and confirmed most of the ancient redwoods, some over 2,000 years old, had withstood the blaze. Among the survivors is one dubbed Mother of the Forest.
The siege of wildfires in the state has been astonishing, especially since California’s peak fire season usually is during the hot, windy days of September and October.
In just a week, the LNU Lightning Complex became the second-largest by size in recent California history, followed by another fire — the SCU Lightning Complex fire that has burned into seven counties and is just 15% contained.
California Wildfires Coverage
Gov. Gavin Newsom said that at this time last year, California had seen about 4,300 wildfires that burned about 87.5 square miles (226.6 square kilometers), while the toll this year is 7,000 fires and nearly 2,200 square miles (5,698 square kilometers).
“We are dealing with different climate conditions that are precipitating in fires the likes we haven’t seen in modern recorded history,” he said Monday.
The fires are blamed for at least seven deaths, among them 70-year-old Mary Hintemeyer, her boyfriend Leo McDermott, and his son, Tom, said Hintemeyer’s son, Robert McNeal.
McNeal told NBC Bay Area that he lost contact with his mother Tuesday night as the fires sped up. He said his mother had tried to go into town earlier that day but turned back at a roadblock where authorities said if she went through she wouldn’t be allowed back. She returned home to get her boyfriend, who was in a wheelchair.
Authorities found their remains among the ruins on the Napa County property Wednesday, he said.
"The message is get out," he said. "Don't worry about your stuff. Your family is going to have to deal with the aftermath of you not getting out. And that's way worse than losing your property."
Authorities identified another victim as Tad Jones, 73. His body was found Sunday near his van in the remote Last Chance area of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Police had to use a helicopter to reach the roughly 40 homes at the end of a winding, steep dirt road.
The Santa Cruz Sentinel wrote about Jones in 2009 after he survived a fire. Jones was a Vietnam veteran who had not spoken since 1976 after he met the late silent monk Baba Hari Dass and went into the woods to practice silence, the Sentinel reported.
Associated Press writers John Antczak and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco and Aron Ranen in Healdsburg contributed to this report.