SCOTTS VALLEY, Calif. -- Three massive wildfires chewed through parched Northern California landscape Sunday as firefighters raced to dig breaks and make other preparations ahead of a frightening weather system. That system was packing high winds and more of the lightning that sparked the huge blazes and scores of other fires around the state, putting nearly a quarter-million people under evacuation orders and warnings.
At the CZU Lightning Complex fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains, south of San Francisco, authorities said their effort was hindered by people who refused to heed evacuation orders and those who were using the chaos to steal. Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart said 100 officers were patrolling and anyone not authorized to be in an evacuation zone would be arrested.
“What we’re hearing from the community is that there’s a lot of looting going on," Hart said. He said eight people have been arrested or cited and “there's going to be more."
He and county District Attorney Jeff Rosell expressed anger at what Rosell called the “absolutely soulless" people who seek to victimize those already victimized by the fire. Among the victims was a fire commander who was robbed while helping coordinate efforts on Saturday.
Someone entered the commander’s fire vehicle and stole personal items, including a wallet and “drained his bank account,” said Chief Mark Brunton, a battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
“I can’t imagine a bigger low-life," Hart said, promising to catch him and vowing “the DA is going to hammer him.”
The Santa Cruz fire is one of the “complexes,” or groups of fires, burning on all sides of the San Francisco Bay Area. They were started by lightning strikes that were among 12,000 registered in the state in the past week.
The National Weather Service issued a “red flag” warning through Monday afternoon for the drought-stricken area, meaning extreme fire conditions including high temperatures, low humidity and wind gusts up to 65 mph (105 kph) that “may result in dangerous and unpredictable fire behavior.”
In nearly a week, firefighters have gotten no more than the 17% containment for the LNU Lightning Complex fire in wine country north of San Francisco. It’s been the most destructive blaze, accounting for five deaths and 845 destroyed homes and other buildings. It and a fire burning southeast of the Bay Area are among the five largest fires in state history, with both burning more than 500 square miles (1,295 square kilometers).
In Southern California, an 11-day-old blaze held steady at just under 50 square miles (106 square kilometers) near Lake Hughes in northern Los Angeles County mountains. Rough terrain, hot weather and the potential for thunderstorms with lightning strikes challenged firefighters.
Holly Hansen, an evacuee from the LNU fire, was among evacuees from the community of Angwin being allowed to back their homes for one hour to retrieve belongings. She and her three dogs waited five hours in her SUV for their turn.
“It’s horrible, I lived in Sonoma during the (2017) Tubbs Fire, so this is time No. 2 for me. It’s horrible when you have to think about what to take," she said. “I think it’s a very raw human base emotion to have fear of fire and losing everything. It's frightening.”
Meantime, firefighters were frantically preparing for thunderstorms that will bring high winds and “dry” lightning, a term used when such storms have little or no rain. Brunton said while he’s confident firefighters did the most with the time they had to prepare, he’s not sure what to expect.
“There's a lot of potential for things to really go crazy out there,” he said.
Since Aug. 15, more than 500 fires of varying sizes have burned throughout California, scorching 1.2 million acres, or 1,875 square miles (4,856 square kilometers). Of those, about two dozen major fires were attracting much of the state’s resources.
Most of the damage was caused by the three complex fires. They have burned 1,175 square miles (3.043 square kilometers), destroyed almost 1,000 homes and other structures and killed five people, three of whom who were found in a home in an area under an evacuation order.
Other casualties included ancient redwood trees at California’s oldest state park, Big Basin Redwoods, plus the park’s headquarters and campgrounds. Smoke from the fires made the region’s air quality dangerous, forcing millions to stay inside.
Officials surveying maps at command centers are astonished by the sheer size of the fires, Cal Fire spokesman Brice Bennett said.
“You could overlay half of one of these fires and it covers the entire city of San Francisco,” Bennett said Sunday.
Fire officials, meanwhile, have struggled to get enough resources to fight the biggest fires because so many blazes are burning around the state.
The wine country fire has only 1,700 firefighters on scene. By comparison, the state had 5,000 firefighters assigned to the Mendocino Complex Fire in 2018, the largest fire in state history.
“All of our resources remain stretched to capacity that we have not seen in recent history,” said Shana Jones, the chief for Cal Fire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit.
Baker reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press journalists Christopher Weber and Aron Ranen contributed, respectively, from Los Angeles and Angwin, California.