California’s Heat Crisis Shifts to Fires Burning Across State

Source: By Lynn Doan, Mark Chediak, and Kara Wetzel, Bloomberg • Posted: Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Californians already struggling with rolling blackouts and sweltering heat are confronting the next crises tied to extreme weather: wildfires and thick haze choking the air.

Blazes burning tens of thousands of acres spurred evacuations in Santa Cruz County and near wine country in the northern part of the state. Smoke blanketed San Francisco Wednesday, parked cars were dusted with ash and air-quality warnings were in effect throughout the Bay Area. More than 150 fires have erupted in the past two days amid record-breaking temperatures, leading Governor Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency.

Wildfire Evacuations Force Some California Residents To Flee In Triple-digit Temperatures

A hillside burns near Lake Berryessa during the Hennessey fire in Napa County on Aug. 18. Photographer: Philip Pacheco/Bloomberg

All the while, the state is struggling to keep the lights on. Rolling blackouts hit millions of Californians over the weekend, and residents were warned the past two nights to gird for more as the heat wave strained power systems. They were spared as the weather began cooling, people dialed back air conditioners and an unexpected burst of wind-power generation came online.

For California, the severe conditions are coming relatively early in its hot, dry wildfire season, portending difficult months ahead as the prospect of bigger blazes loom — at the same time the state is dealing with a pandemic that has killed more than 11,000 residents. Its travails add to 2020’s global tally of extremes and offer a glimpse into the future of a climate-changed world.

“Dry lightning strikes are hitting everywhere,” Lynette Round, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said in an interview Wednesday. “The hot weather has also been tough on firefighters, and it’s been tough to keep up with all these little fires.”

Wildfire Evacuations Force Some California Residents To Flee In Triple-digit Temperatures

A firefighter douses flames during the Hennessey fire in Solano County on Aug. 19. Photographer: Philip Pacheco/Bloomberg

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By Wednesday morning, a blaze in Napa and Sonoma counties had stretched to more than 46,000 acres, prompting residents to flee. Cal Fire issued evacuation orders late Tuesday in Santa Cruz County and San Mateo counties, where a fire has burned 10,000 acres. In Calaveras County, a fire spread over 1,500 acres and was 10% contained. More blazes broke out in Glenn County and Tehama County.

Haze from the smoke could be seen throughout the Bay Area. A “Spare the Air” alert was issued, banning the burning of solid fuel and urging residents to stay indoors.

Meanwhile, the risk of more power outages remain. The California Independent System Operator, which operates the state’s power grid, asked for conservation on Wednesday as temperatures are forecast to hit 102 degrees Fahrenheit (39 degrees Celsius) in Sacramento and 94 degrees in Los Angeles, threatening to pressure the system once again. But the heat is forecast to subside by the end of the week.

The latest blackouts mark the only time outside of the 2000-2001 energy crisis that the state’s grid operator has initiated rotating outages. The move has drawn harsh criticism from industry experts who say the blackouts weren’t necessary. Newsom has ordered an investigation. And despite wind power showing up to save the day Tuesday, the outages have sparked a debate over the reliability of the grid, which has become increasingly dependent on intermittent renewable energy resources.

The heat wave gripping the West Coast stems from a stubborn, high-pressure system that has parked itself across the Great Basin spanning Nevada and other western states. It essentially acts as a lid trapping hot air. It doesn’t bode well for California’s fire season, which typically intensifies in September and October.

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Round, at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, couldn’t say exactly how many fires had erupted by Tuesday night. “It’s all happening so quickly,” she said. “It’s been hard to keep up.”

— With assistance by Anthony Robledo, and Chris Martin

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