San Francisco Blanketed in Smoke as California Fires Rage

August 19, 2020 Updated: August 20, 2020

SAN FRANCISCO—Thousands of people were under orders to evacuate in areas surrounding the San Francisco Bay Area Wednesday as nearly 40 wildfires blazed across the state amid a blistering heat wave now in its second week. Smoke blanketed San Francisco.

Police and firefighters went door-to-door before dawn Wednesday in a frantic scramble to warn residents to evacuate as fire encroached on Vacaville, a city of about 100,000 between San Francisco and Sacramento. Fire officials said at least 50 structures were destroyed and 50 were damaged and that four people were injured.

Television footage showed some homes in flames and thick ash dropping in a rural area near Interstate 80 as the fire appeared to head toward more densely populated areas.

Diane Bustos told KPIX-TV that she and her husband tried to drive out but their vehicle caught on fire and they had to flee on foot.

“I got all these flames on me and I lost my shoe, but I made it. God saved me,” she said.

Many evacuees were alerted by calls to flee around 2:30 a.m., the Vacaville Reporter newspaper said.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said that blaze and others were exhibiting “extreme fire behavior” and challenging firefighters. There is rugged terrain in several of the areas and unexpectedly strong winds overnight fanned the flames.

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

Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered a statewide state of emergency Tuesday, saying the blazes were “exacerbated by the effects of the historic West Coast heat wave and sustained high winds.”

In San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, about 22,000 people were ordered to evacuate because of a fire burning in dense wooded parkland that threatened communities, Cal Fire spokesman Jonathan Cox said.

“This is a very active timber fire burning in two counties with a serious threat to both public safety and for structures that are out in front of it,” he said.

Thousands of homes and businesses were also threatened in the wine-growing counties of Napa and Sonoma in an area devastated by a series of deadly blazes in the last three years. Powers said much of the fire was burning through rural areas with steep terrain, making it difficult to get crews in.

In Napa County, Gail Bickett, 80, loaded up her three dogs in a truck to evacuate as the fire burned behind houses across the road, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

“It’s scary,” she said. “It’s overwhelming.”

Christopher Godley, Sonoma County’s emergency management director, said about 10,000 people were under evacuation orders as crews battled two blazes and were working to set up an evacuation center with alternate locations for people exhibiting coronavirus symptoms.

He conceded that sources are strapped statewide.

“It’s difficult to second guess what the fire commanders are doing with their aircraft. But it’s not like last year when we saw just a huge wealth of resources flowing into the county,” he said. “It is what it is.”

State Sen. Bill Dodd, who represents the area, said the fires burning in Napa and Sonoma counties were mostly affecting less populated areas.

“I think the people around here, even the people that have structures in harm’s way, understand that they’re in a more rural area and that the people in more densely populated areas have to get the resources first,” he said.

In the East San Francisco Bay, a cluster of 20 separate lightning-sparked fires threatened about 1,400 structures in rugged terrain with dense brush. Strong winds and low humidity made the firefight challenging.

Blazes engulfed rural and forest areas near the San Francisco Bay Area, near Salinas in Monterey County, around Oroville Dam north of Sacramento, forested areas west of Silicon Valley, in remote Mendocino County and near the Nevada state line north of Lake Tahoe.

Several also were burning in northern coastline areas and in Southern California.

The cluster of wine country fires threaten an area that only last year grappled with another massive blaze that forced 200,000 to flee—a task made more complicated this year because of the pandemic.

To the south, evacuations were ordered for all of Boulder Creek to the west of Silicon Valley, a community of 5,000 high in the Santa Cruz mountains where windy, long, forested roads, some paved, some dirt, can easily become blocked during storms or fires. About 6,000 structures were threatened by that blaze.