Crews were battling wildfires in the San Francisco Bay Area and thousands of people were under orders to evacuate Wednesday as hundreds of wildfires blazed across the state amid a blistering heatwave now in its second week.
Governor Gavin Newsom blamed "this extraordinary weather we're experiencing and all of these lightning strikes" for 367 known fires, including 23 major fires or groups of fires. He said the state has recorded nearly 11,000 lightning strikes in 72 hours.
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. At least 50 structures were destroyed, including some homes, and 50 damaged.
"This is an incredibly emotional and stressful time for most of us who've endured a number of wildfires over the last few years," said Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick.
Ash and smoke filled the air over San Francisco, which is surrounded by wildfires burning in multiple counties to the north, east and south. The so-called LNU Lightning fire is made up of several fires burning in five counties north of San Francisco, including in Vacaville, and had consumed 186sq km as of Wednesday morning.
John Gardiner, 60, stayed up all night after receiving an alert from a neighbour of oncoming fire around just before midnight. His house and neighbours' homes were still safe, but he worried that could change as crews anticipate hot winds Wednesday afternoon.
"It was incredible, things swirling, winds just whipping through like a howling ripping sound and then you could hear explosions going off," he said. "You can taste smoke in your mouth."
Victoria Gregorich, 54, said her family loaded up the car and left their Vacaville home after deputies rang the gate around 12.30am to tell them to evacuate. The fire destroyed her greenhouse, but the house was spared.
Her neighbours were not so lucky.
"It's devastating," she said. "I just thank God we have our home."
Elvis Castaneda, 28, and his father Silverio spent the night moving ranching equipment to a safer location, removing vegetation and making firebreaks with their tractor around the properties of friends.
"We couldn't see the flames but the sky was pretty orange, and we knew it was coming our way," Elvis Castaneda said.
He said he drove home at 3am and started packing legal documents, photos, passports and his firearms after hearing that his girlfriend's family, who live in a ranch two miles (3 kilometers) away, were told to evacuate and move all their farm animals to safety.
He got the order to leave after dawn Wednesday.
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."
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 centre with alternate locations for people exhibiting coronavirus symptoms.
He conceded that resources 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."
In the East San Francisco Bay, a cluster of 20 separate lightning-sparked fires threatened about 1400 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 5000 high in the Santa Cruz mountains where windy, long, forested roads, some paved, some dirt, can easily become blocked during storms or fires. About 6000 structures were threatened by that blaze.