Largest wildfire in California history still growing

LAKEPORT, California: Northern California is grappling with the largest wildfire in California history, breaking a record set only months earlier.

Experts say this may become the new normal as climate change coupled with the expansion of homes into undeveloped areas creates more intense and devastating blazes.

On Monday, twin fires north of San Francisco burning just miles apart became the largest collective wildfire in state history after destroying more than 443 square miles of forest and rural areas. That’s nearly the size of Los Angeles.

Copy of California_Wildfires_84445.jpg-26858 A truck passes by flames during the Ranch Fire in Clearlake Oaks, California. AP

The so-called Mendocino Complex fire is only a couple of square miles larger than a deadly blaze last December but it’s still growing.

Officials say the twin fires threaten 11,300 buildings.

Copy of California_Wildfires_94297.jpg-1678c Towering flames approach a home during the Ranch fire in Clearlake Oaks, California. AP

In all, more than 14,000 firefighters are battling major blazes throughout California.

Wildfires the size of Los Angeles 

 Multiple wildfires that together grew Monday to nearly the size of Los Angeles could become the worst in fire-prone California’s history, authorities warned.

The River and Ranch fires, which together are called the Mendocino Complex, blackened an area of 273,660 acres (110,750 hectares).

Authorities from state fire agency CalFire reported before midday that it already had mushroomed into the second worst blaze in state history in terms of area burned.

Copy of California_Wildfires_Record_43864.jpg-b14dd~1 A firefighter runs while trying to save a home as a wildfire tears through Lakeport, California. AP

“I expect to see it to be number one, unfortunately, this evening,” CalFire spokesman Scott McLean said on Facebook.

The largest ever until Monday had been the Thomas Fire in December 2017. It was 440 square miles (1,140 square kilometers) – almost the size of Los Angeles.

Further north in the state, the Carr Fire has scorched 154,524 acres of land since July 23, when authorities say it was triggered by the “mechanical failure of a vehicle” that caused sparks to fly in tinderbox-dry conditions.

The fire has razed more than 1,600 buildings, including some 1,000 homes, state officials say.

Copy of California_Wildfires_62477.jpg-7c295~1 A tree burns from the inside during the Ranch Fire in Clearlake Oaks, California. AP

More than 14,000 firefighters were battling the blazes across the state, which has lost another 918 square miles already this year.

The wildfires are “extremely fast, extremely aggressive, extremely dangerous,” said Scott McLean, a deputy chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“Look how big it got, just in a matter of days… Look how fast this Mendocino Complex went up in ranking. That doesn’t happen. That just doesn’t happen.”

President Donald Trump raised eyebrows by tweeting about the wildfires inaccurately, claiming there was not enough water to fight them.

Copy of California_Wildfires_61984.jpg-81fcb~1 An air tanker drops fire retardant on a burning hillside during the Ranch fire in Clearlake Oaks, California. AP

“California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized,” Trump said.

“It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire from spreading!”

In fact, “we have plenty of water to fight these wildfires, but let’s be clear: It’s our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires,” Daniel Berlant, CalFire assistant deputy director, told The New York Times.

In an unrelated long-running dispute, farmers have demanded more water to irrigate crops for years, while environmentalists say diverting more water to crops would kill off fish stock and hurt rivers.

Copy of California_Wildfires_42447.jpg-b3b39 A plume of smoke from a wildfire burning near the Holy Jim area looms in the distance, in Lake Forest, California. AP

14,000 firefighters battling 18 major California blazes

Some 14,000 firefighters, including inmate volunteers, are battling 18 major blazes burning thousands of square miles throughout California with aircraft, assorted vehicles and picks and shovels.

They take aim at the biggest wildfires in two ways and in much of the same way the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has for decades. They’ll go at it directly with water and retardant where they can.

And when they can’t take that direct approach, firefighters retreat to a ridge, wide road or stream where they use bulldozers to cut a “fire line.” There they’ll wait for the blaze to come to them while lighting “backfires” to clear vegetation between the fire line and the approaching blaze.

Copy of 2018-08-07T071303Z_1553898792_RC11374C4F40_RTRMADP_3_USA-WILDFIRES Aerial view of Trabuco Canyon as a tanker aircraft dumps load onto Holy Fire, Near Santiago Peak, California. Reuters

Experts say whichever approach Cal Fire takes, California firefighters are often more aggressive in trying to extinguish wildfires than those in other less-populated states. That’s because California wildfires are increasingly threatening sprawling urban areas.

“Cal Fire is really an urban firefighter service in the woods,” said Arizona State University life sciences professor Stephen Pyne, a wildfire management expert.

Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said firefighters use both approaches to battle the large blazes, including the growing twin fires about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of San Francisco.

McLean said firefighters are using the direct approach to prevent the fires from reaching urban areas along Clear Lake while retreating in national forests “and letting the fire come to us.”

Copy of California_Wildfires_34970.jpg-67593 The Ranch fire spots out ahead of the main fire in Spring Valley, burning two homes. AP

Those two fires grew to a combined 443 square miles (1,148 square kilometers) to become the state’s largest wildfire.

McLean and fire experts say it’s impossible to surround a fire that large, especially with 17 other major fires requiring attention in the state.

“We are building lines. Picking and choosing where we think we can take a stand,” McLean said. “Attacking it where we can and waiting and letting it come to us when appropriate.”

McLean said firefighters are using direct means to prevent the twin fires from reaching evacuated urban areas on the east side of Clear Lake. At the same time, firefighters have pulled back in the uninhabited national forests to the north, where they have cut fire lines and are employing indirect methods.

Copy of California_Wildfires_17657.jpg-f4753 The Ranch fire spots out ahead of the main fire in Spring Valley, burning two homes. AP

Experts say the best way to fight these destructive wildfires is to prevent them in the first place when building homes and other buildings.

“It’s the embers, not the fire itself, that destroy most homes,” said Steve Conboy, a construction expert whose company develops fire-resistant chemicals to apply to wood.

In the meantime, Gov. Jerry Brown and other state officials warned that the state is expected to endure record-breaking wildfires going forward. Drought, warmer weather and other factors have combined to start wildfire season sooner and make the blazes more destructive.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” the governor said last week. “Since civilization emerged 10,000 years ago, we haven’t had this kind of heat condition, and it’s going to continue getting worse. That’s the way it is.”

Copy of APTOPIX_California_Wildfires_59255.jpg-3025f Two spectators watch as smoke from a wildfire burning near the Holy Jim area rises in the distance, in Lake Forest, California. AP

Firefighting costs have more than tripled from $242 million in the 2013 fiscal year to $773 million in the 2018 fiscal year that ended June 30, according to Cal Fire.

“In past decades, we may have seen a fire that we’re seeing now in August or September,” Ca Fire Director Ken Pimlott said during a press conference last week. “We are routinely now seeing fires reach 100,000 acres several times in one month and it’s only July, so we have a long way to go in this fire season, and as we saw last year fire season can go right up through December.”

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