2 Die Fighting California Lightning Fires, Tens of Thousands Flee

August 20, 2020 Updated: August 20, 2020

Two people have been killed fighting hundreds of wildfires ignited by intense lightning storms in California and tens of thousands have fled their homes as structures burn and the state runs low on firefighting resources.

Nearly 11,000 lightning strikes hit the state over a 72-hour stretch this week in California’s heaviest lightning storms in over a decade, igniting 367 fires, almost two dozen forming major conflagrations, authorities said.

At least nine fires raced through hills and mountains adjacent to Northern California’s drought-parched wine country about 35 miles southwest of Sacramento.

With several joining up, they formed a 131,000 acre “megafire” nearly 10 times larger than New York’s Manhattan island across Napa, Solano, Yolo, and two other counties.

Collectively known as the LNU Complex Fire, the fires destroyed at least 105 structures. A PG&E utility worker died on Wednesday helping first responders and at least four civilians were injured, according to a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) spokeswoman.

A convoy of emergency vehicles
A convoy of emergency vehicles drives along an emptied Interstate 80 during the LNU Lighting Complex Fire on the outskirts of Vacaville, Calif., on Aug 19, 2020. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

In central California, a helicopter was on a water-dropping mission in Fresno County about 160 miles south of San Francisco on Wednesday when it crashed, killing pilot Mike Fournier, 52, a former high school football coach, according to his family.

Another cluster of lightning-strike fires burned across 40,000 acres of San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties around 13 miles south of Palo Alto, injuring three first responders, forcing 22,000 to evacuate, and destroying 20 structures, CalFire said.

Fanned by “red-flag” high winds, the fires are racing through vegetation parched by a record-breaking heat wave.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom requested 375 fire crews from out of state as resources ran thin, in part as prisoners normally conscripted into firefighting were locked down for COVID-19 or released from prison to slow the spread of the virus.

Another group of 20 fires, called the SCU Lightning Complex, scorched over 102,000 acres some 20 miles east of Palo Alto across three counties, injuring two first responders.

By Steven Lam