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Record-breaking California wildfires scorch 8,000 sq. km, prompting closure of state forests

Wildfires have burned a record 8,000 square kilometres in California this year, and the danger for more destruction is so high the U.S. Forest Service announced Monday it was closing all eight national forests in the southern half of the state.

A gender-reveal event gone wrong is blamed for the El Dorado fire that has now scorched 30 square km

A firefighter battles the Creek Fire as it threatens homes in the Cascadel Woods neighborhood of Madera County, Calif., on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

Wildfires have burned a record 8,000 square kilometres in California this year, and the danger for more destruction is so great that the U.S. Forest Service announced Monday it was closing all eight national forests in the state's southern half.

After a typically dry summer, California is parched heading into fall and what normally is the most dangerous time for wildfires. Two of the three largest fires in state history are burning in the San Francisco Bay Area. More than 14,000 firefighters are battling those fires and dozens of others more around California.

A three-day heat wave brought triple-digit temperatures to much of the state during Labour Day weekend. But right behind it was a weather system with dry winds that could fan fires. The state's largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, was preparing to cut power to 158,000 customers in 21 counties in the northern half of the state to reduce the possibility its lines and other equipment could spark new fires.

"The wildfire situation throughout California is dangerous and must be taken seriously," said Randy Moore, regional forester for the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Region. "Existing fires are displaying extreme fire behaviour, new fire starts are likely, weather conditions are worsening, and we simply do not have enough resources to fully fight and contain every fire."

One of those existing fires was sparked when a couple's plan to reveal their baby's gender went up not in blue or pink smoke but in flames. The ensuing wildfire has burned thousands of acres and forced people to flee from a city east of Los Angeles.

The fire prompted evacuations in parts of Yucaipa, a city of 54,000, and the surrounding area. Water-dropping helicopters were brought in but the fire has proven stubborn — it grew to 30 square kilometres by Monday morning and more than 500 firefighters on the scene only had minimal containment. No homes have burned and no injuries were reported.

"Cal Fire reminds the public that with the dry conditions and critical fire weather it doesn't take much to start a wildfire," the statement said. 

"Those responsible for starting fires due to negligence or illegal activity can be held financially and criminally responsible."

Roads are blocked near Yucaipa, Calif., as the El Dorado Fire entered its third day on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020. (Cindy Yamanaka/The Orange County Register/SCNG via The Associated Press)

This wildfire season has already broken the previous record of 7,931 square kilometres burned in 2018. Cal Fire began keeping the records in 1987.

The most striking thing about the record is how early it was set, with the most dangerous part of the year ahead, said Lynne Tolmachoff, a spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.

"It's a little unnerving because September and October are historically our worst months for fires," she said. "It's usually hot, and the fuels really dry out. And we see more of our wind events."

A man and woman evacuate from the North Fork community in Madera County, Calif., as the Creek Fire approaches on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

While the two mammoth Bay Area fires were largely contained after burning for three weeks, firefighters struggled to corral several others ahead of the expected winds. Evacuation orders were expanded to more mountain communities Monday as the largest blaze, the Creek Fire, churned through the Sierra National Forest in Central California.

The state has seen 900 wildfires since Aug. 15, many of them started by an intense series of thousands of lightning strikes. There have been eight fire deaths and nearly 3,300 structures destroyed.

Airlift rescue

More than 200 people were airlifted to safety early Sunday after fast-moving flames trapped them in a popular camping area in the Sierra National Forest.

The California Office of Emergency Services said Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters were used for the rescues.

Dozens of evacuees are seen onboard a California National Guard Chinook helicopter on Saturday. (California National Guard via AP)

At least two people were severely injured and 10 more suffered moderate injuries. Two campers refused rescue and stayed behind, the Madera County Sheriff's Office said.

A photo tweeted by the National Guard showed at least 20 evacuees crammed inside one helicopter, crouched on the floor clutching their belongings.

In another photo taken on the ground from the cockpit, the densely wooded hills surrounding the aircraft were in flames.

WATCH | California's worst wildfire season likely to get worse: 

California is having the worst wildfire season in its history with more than 800,000 hectares burned so far this year. Adding to the danger is the extremely dry climate and record-breaking heat. 1:56

The wildfire dubbed the Creek Fire has charred more than 295 square kilometres of timber since breaking out Friday. The 850 firefighters on the scene had yet to get any containment after three days of work in sweltering heat. 

Debra Rios wasn't home when the order came to evacuate her hometown of Auberry, just northeast of Fresno. Sheriff's deputies went to her ranch property to pick up her 92-year-old mother, Shirley MacLean. They reunited at an evacuation center.

"I hope like heck the fire doesn't reach my little ranch," Rios said. "It's not looking good right now. It's an awfully big fire."

Smoke from wildfires burning east of Los Angeles dims the sunrise on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, seen from Pasadena, Calif. (John Antczak/The Associated Press)

Mountain roads were filled with cars and trucks leaving the community of about 2,300 people.

Firefighters working in steep terrain saved the tiny town of Shaver Lake from flames that roared down hillsides toward a marina. About 30 houses were destroyed in the remote hamlet of Big Creek, according to resident Toby Wait.

"About half the private homes in town burned down," he said. "Words cannot even begin to describe the devastation of this community."

A school, church, library, historic general store and a major hydroelectric plant were spared in the community of about 200 residents, Wait told the Fresno Bee.

Officials hoped to keep the fire from pushing west, possibly toward Yosemite National Park.

Planned power outages

Pacific Gas & Electric warned it might cut power starting late Monday to about 158,000 customers in parts of 21 Northern California counties because of the increased fire danger. Some of the state's largest and deadliest fires in recent years have been sparked by downed power lines and other utility equipment.

PG&E received criticism for its handling of previous planned outages. The utility said it has learned from past problems, "and this year will be making events smaller in size, shorter in length and smarter for customers."

Downtown Los Angeles reached 44 C on Sunday and a record-shattering high of 49.4 C was recorded in the nearby Woodland Hills neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley. It was the highest temperature ever recorded in Los Angeles County, according to the National Weather Service.

Meanwhile, downtown San Francisco set a record for the day with a high of 37.7 C on Sunday.

With files from The Associated Press

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