Inside the state’s emergency command center here, the numbers on a large screen show the scope and reach of California’s record-setting wildfire season glowing in red, blue and yellow: nearly 600,000 acres burned. More than 13,000 firefighters battling blazes. More than 2,300 members of the National Guard pulled into the fight.
The numbers, though, do not begin to tell the story of the challenge and complexity of the firefighting effort, with temperatures still soaring. Fires are moving faster than anyone has ever seen, and barriers that in years past contained fires — bulldozer lines, highways, rivers — are now no match. By midday Tuesday the numbers had already climbed, as more acres burned and more personnel had been rushed to the fires.
All of this comes as California is fighting approximately 17 large fires simultaneously, including the largest in the state’s recorded history. The fire season that has already scorched nearly three times the number of acres over the same period last year has tested the state’s firefighting resources like never before.
“It’s unprecedented to have so many sustained demands for so many resources over such a short amount of time,” said Jonathan Cox, a battalion chief and spokesman with Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency.
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The firefighting and recovery efforts — from managing air quality to setting up emergency shelters, to helping residents return home — are led at the highest levels from the command center in Mather, on the outskirts of Sacramento.
Each morning in this high-tech, modern glass building, the top state emergency officials appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown sit down to review what happened the night before. And Tuesday morning, even as news came in overnight that the state was now grappling with the largest fire in its history — called the Mendocino Complex —
California now has more firefighters deployed than at any other time in the state’s history. Several dozen firefighters from Australia and New Zealand had been diverted south from the devastating Carr Fire to help with the Mendocino Fire. A battalion of infantry soldiers from the United States Army was being dispatched. And with California’s own resources tapped out, 17 states have rushed equipment and firefighters to aid the effort.
A pair of fires called the Mendocino Complex had been growing for nearly two weeks before becoming the largest fire on Monday night. The Northern California fire has already consumed roughly 454 square miles and forced tens of thousands of people from their homes.
A fire in the Cleveland National Forest exploded, easily consuming 4,000 acres and forcing evacuations from two canyons in Orange County. The smoke from that fire could be seen from as far away as Santa Catalina Island. Another Northern California fire in the Stanislaus National Forest destroyed a century-old resort.
Larry Dietz, a Red Cross spokesman, said that there were about 500 people in six Red Cross shelters and in one other shelter that is not affiliated with the agency in Lake, Colusa and Mendocino Counties.
And even as the fires burn, analysts are already thinking of the mudslides that could come later, as rain in the winter months soaks the scorched earth. Earlier this year, more than 20 people were killed in mudslides that tore through Montecito. So while the fires burn, analysts in the command center are already figuring out where the highest risks are for devastating debris flows.