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Firefighters are stretched thin as flames rage across California

They battled more than 350 fires around the state without the aid of a full slate of minimum-security inmates because of the pandemic.
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Flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fires jump Interstate 80 in Vacaville, Calif., on Aug. 19, 2020. The highway was closed in both directions shortly afterward.Noah Berger / AP

ALAMEDA, Calif.— Officials and firefighters in California say they are stretched thin battling hundreds of wildfires, many of which exploded across the state in recent days.

The problem has intensified as tens of thousands of structures remain threatened and evacuation orders and warnings issued from rural Lake County north of San Francisco to the Santa Cruz mountains on the south. Overnight, residents of Platina, Shasta County were also warned to evacuate. The blazes have been blamed for at least five deaths.

Tim Edwards, president of the CalFire firefighters union, said 2020 was beginning to resemble 2017, when the state saw some of its most destructive fires.

“We are in the same situation but with 10 times as many fires,” he said.

Many of the blazes ignited after a rare summer thunderstorm hit Northern California with nearly 11,000 lightning strikes in 72 hours. The storm was followed by a heatwave with triple-digit temperatures and rolling blackouts across wide swaths of the state. The region was already especially combustible after recording one of its driest winters on record, a development scientists have attributed to climate change.

The largest fire burning in the state, the LNU Lightning Complex Fire, charred 215,000 acres across five counties and was 0 percent contained Thursday evening. Firefighters were battling 367 known fires across the state, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday.

“What has occurred over the last 72 hours has certainly stretched the resources of this state,” he said.

Newsom said he requested 375 fire engines from other states. So far, governors in Arizona, Nevada and Texas have agreed to send crews and support, Newsom said, though he didn’t offer specifics.

Newsom said the state had also recently added 830 more seasonal firefighters to an agency that averages 6,000 full-time professionals. Yet those additions came as CalFire continues to lose what once constituted a large force within its ranks — prison inmates.

In 2015, the state relied on roughly 3,800 minimum-security inmates to help fight wildfires. As of Thursday, that number had shrunk to 1,659, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said. The reduction was partly driven by longstanding efforts to reduce overcrowding in California’s prison system, but it’s been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, when the state began releasing thousands of mostly nonviolent prisoners early.

“Those lower-risk inmates are no longer sitting in jail,” Edwards said. “We don’t have that resource available to us, but we’ve always been saying that that resource is going away.”

Bill Nichols, 84, works to save his home as the LNU Lightning Complex fires tear through Vacaville, Calif., on Aug. 19, 2020. Nichols has lived in the home for 77 years.Noah Berger / AP

Local fire departments have been stepping in to help. Fire officials in Oakland said the department has sent 30 firefighters and six engines to help battle several blazes across the region.

“We felt the strong need to assist outside because we know what they are going through,” said Battalion Chief Christopher Landry. “We were begging for other cities to help us in ’91,” when a firestorm tore through the hills above Oakland and Berkeley, killing 25 people and destroying thousands of homes.

Still, he added, “That’s 30 firefighters that normally would be home and off duty who are back in the seats of fire engines.”

The San Jose Fire Department has dispatched between 40 and 50 firefighters to help, a department spokesman said, while the San Francisco Fire Department has sent 60 personnel and 13 engines to three fires, according to spokesman Lt. Jonathan Baxter.

Baxter said San Francisco is unusual because it has a team of dedicated mutual aid personnel — roughly 400 of the department’s 1,600 firefighters have volunteered to train and fight wildland fires. When help is requested, he said, those firefighters can be dispatched in about an hour.

“What’s different about what we’re seeing now is the immediate need for mutual aid,” he said. “Someone will call up and say, ‘We need help and we need it right now.’

“In those incidents we can’t wait an hour,” he added. “That can mean homes and lives are destroyed.”

So whoever is on duty is immediately dispatched, regardless of their training, as if the fire is in San Francisco, he said. This was the case Wednesday when two teams were sent to the LNU Lightning Complex Fire northeast of the city, he said.

Edwards, meanwhile, worried about the toll all those lengthy shifts during the most extreme conditions will take on firefighters.

“They're going to do the job, don’t get me wrong. They’re going to do the best job they can,” he said. But when “fatigue kicks in, injuries go up.”

Tim Stelloh reported from Alameda and Cyrus Farivar from Oakland.