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Expected cooldown brings hope as California burn total nears 4 million acres

Midsummer's August Complex Fire, in seven Northern California counties, was nearly at 1 million acres. It's the largest such blaze in state history.
Image: Firefighters take defensive stance after firing operation to control Glass Fire in Calistoga, California
Firefighters take a defensive stance after a firing operation to control the Glass fire in Calistoga, Calif., on Oct. 1, 2020.Adrees Latif / Reuters

A forecast calling for cooler temperatures and mellowing winds inspired some hope for firefighters who continued to toil Friday in a record year for wildfires in California.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said in a daily summary Friday more than 8,200 wildfires this year have burned "well over" 3.9 million acres, an annual record as fall's traditional fire season was just getting underway. At least 31 wildfire-related deaths have been recorded in 2020.

Cal Fire communications Chief Scott McLean said the 4 million mark could be reached in the next few days. Alaska's 2004 season saw 6.6 million acres burn. "In recorded history, this is the worst season in California," he said.

Midsummer's August Complex Fire, in seven Northern California counties, "has almost reached 1 million acres and is only 51 percent contained," said Cal Fire spokesperson Sean McFadden.

The blaze on federal land is the largest wildfire in state history.

Much focus this week has been on the Glass Fire in the California wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties. It started Sunday and burned through vineyards, resorts and homes, Cal Fire Deputy Chief Jonathan Cox said. It was at 60,148 acres with 6 percent containment Friday.

Image: Firefighters battle the Glass Fire as it encroaches towards a residence in Calistoga, California
Firefighters battle the Glass fire as it encroaches towards a residence in Calistoga, Calif., on Oct. 1, 2020.Adrees Latif / Reuters

Santa Rosa police Chief Ray Navarro said at a news conference Friday that 12,925 people were under orders to evacuate as a result of the blaze; another 22,631 were covered by evacuation warnings. Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said more evacuations were possible through Saturday.

A few hours later, Cal Fire announced that evacuation orders in Sonoma County were downgraded to evacuation warnings.

The Glass Fire so far has destroyed 558 structures and damaged 108, said Cal Fire unit Chief Shana Jones.

Jeff Lyles, 33, of St. Helena said he fled the area Sunday night and did not know what became of his home until driving back Tuesday.

"Well, moment of truth, and pulled in, and said, 'Nope, it's gone,'" he said. "The mailbox was still there."

A red flag fire weather warning was in effect for the fire zone north of the Bay Area through Saturday morning. Officials fear that the weather will get worse Friday afternoon and night before improving with a cool onshore push next week.

"We’re coming up on the most critical period later this afternoon and this evening," said National Weather Service meteorologist Ryan Walbrun.

Wind gusts out of the northwest could reach 35 mph, he said.

A high temperature of 101 was forecast for Santa Rosa Friday. The weekend could see cooling into the 90s for high temperatures before cooler ocean air moves in next week and pushes highs into the 80s, Walbrun said.

"Winds are going to get lighter," he said.

Cal Fire incident manager Billy See said Friday that the agency "anticipates better weather conditions."

"We are looking forward to decreased winds, decreased temperatures, increased humidities, which will give our firefighters and our boots on the ground a fighting chance to gain additional perimeter control and start to bring some normalcy back to these impacted areas," he said.

The state was grappling with 23 major wildfires. There were fires burning Friday from San Diego County to the Oregon border.

The 396,624-acre SCU Lightning Complex fire, named for Cal Fire's Santa Clara County unit, offered some good news Friday: It was 100 percent contained nearly six weeks after it started.