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California ‘Not Out Of The Woods’ As Wildfires Burn Acreage The Size Of Rhode Island

A hillside west of Lake Berryessa burns in the LNU Lightning Complex fires on Thursday, August 20, 2020.
Andrew Nixon
A hillside west of Lake Berryessa burns in the LNU Lightning Complex fires on Thursday, August 20, 2020.

A historic heatwave, wind and thousands of lightning strikes earlier this week sparked immense growth of hundreds of individual fires across Northern California and strained resources.

The state will receive some federal aid through Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements and Western states are sending additional resources. But officials worry it may not be enough.

“First responders have been stretched thin everywhere throughout the state, but they continue to work hard and they’re getting little rest,” Cal Fire unit chief Shana Jones said at a briefing Friday. “We’re trying to switch that by incoming resources trickling in, and that’s going to help us.”

But the sheer acreage of the wildfires is posing a major challenge despite the state’s best efforts to prepare. This year, the Legislature approved an $85 million funding boost for Cal Fire to hire more full time wildland firefighters and an additional 830 seasonal firefighters.

“We have more people, but it’s not enough. We have more air support, but it’s still not enough,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said. “That’s why we need the support of our federal partners and the extraordinary contributions that governors — regardless of our party, have also provided.”

Newsom thanked governors in 10 states — including Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Texas — for sending fire engines and other technical support when he asked for help.

“Not one governor has not been responsive. Some governors have expressed some concerns about their own resources” as the Western United States emerges from an exhaustive heat wave that hung over the region for nearly a full week, he said.

There’s another wrinkle in the manpower shortage. Typically, prison inmates provide volunteer labor fighting wildfires in hand crews, but with a wave of early releases and thousands of other inmates infected by the coronavirus, the inmate crews are unavailable this summer.

Newsom said he anticipated the labor shortfall and in early July approved $72 million to backfill.

The weather conditions also continue to challenge crews, with hot temperatures and dry winds continuing across much of Northern California for days. Officials pleaded with residents to pack emergency bags and be prepared to evacuate at a moment’s notice.

“We’re not out of the woods,” Jones said. “There’s still some areas threatened, some communities threatened. Some peoples’ homes are threatened.

“I hope for good news, but it’s going to take a long time. We’re not out of the woods,” she reiterated. “Not by far.”

Copyright 2020 CapRadio