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‘Historic lightning siege:’ Thousands flee as hundreds of wildfires blaze across California

Thousands of people are under evacuation orders in regions around the San Francisco Bay Area on Wednesday as wildfires blazed across the state amid a blistering heat wave now in its second week. Smoke blanketed San Francisco, and could be seen from space, per satellites at the National Weather Service.

In all, Gov. Gavin Newsom said firefighters are battling 367 known wildfires across California, including 23 that are considered major fires. Of those 367 fires, “the prospect of that number going up is very real,” he said at a press conference Wednesday.

Newsom blamed “the extraordinary weather we’re experiencing and all of these lightning strikes” for the fires. He said the state has recorded nearly 11,000 lightning strikes in 72 hours.

A helicopter fighting the blaze crashed in Coalinga, California Wednesday morning, killing the pilot and sparking a new wildfire, which then merged into the nearby Hills Fire. The blaze burning near Vacaville was dubbed the Hennessey Fire, but there are so many fires burning in the area that firefighters have put them all under one incident – the LNU Lightning Complex – for reporting purposes, said. In all, those fires have burned around 72 square miles of land in Napa and Sonoma counties, and are 0% contained.

Residents of Vacaville, a city of about 100,000 between San Francisco and Sacramento, awoke in the darkness Wednesday morning to frantic evacuation orders as an uncontrolled wildfire burned into the western edge of the city and destroyed at least 50 structures. In Solano County, a rural area southeast of Vacaville, some residents fled for the first time ever.

“I’ve lived here for 30 years, never had to evacuate before,” resident Tim Lukehart said. “There’s been fires of course, but not like this one.”

The air had an orange, smoke-filled hue for miles, with ash covering vehicles. Homes were burned down on both sides of Pleasant Valley Road, the street where Lukehart lives with his wife Sarah. Wooden fences were still in flames, and one family was chasing their cattle through a field as they tried to bring the animals home to safety as the grass smoldered. A rescue effort to save about 125 horses failed as owners could not get trailers to the area or access by foot.

In an alert issued just after 7 p.m. Wednesday, the Travis Air Force base commander ordered a partial evacuation of “non-mission essential personnel.”

Wednesday afternoon, the fire jumped Interstate 80, forcing highway officials to close a five-mile freeway section.

The LNU Lightning Complex is the second-largest fire burning in California on Wednesday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The largest fire burning in California, a blaze made up of 20 separate fires burning near San Jose, has been named the SCU Lightning Complex Fire. The fire ballooned from 54 square miles to burning at least 132 square miles over Tuesday night. It is 5% contained, and threatens more than 1,400 structures, according to the SCU branch of Cal Fire.

Another group of 30 fires in Chico, called the Butte Lightning Complex fires, has consumed 2 square miles with 10% containment, with Cal Fire, and are not expected to impact residents, according to a Cal Fire-Butte County news release.

Will Powers, a state fire spokesman, said “throughout the state of California right now, we are stretched thin for crews” because of the fires. “Air resources have been stretched thin throughout the whole state.”

Much of California is enduring a sweltering late summer heat wave that has broken several record highs in recent days, including a 130-degree reading Sunday in Death Valley, said. The hot, dry conditions are expected to continue at least into the weekend.