December 8, 2021

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4 reported dead as LNU fire in Vacaville, Napa, Sonoma tops 215K acres

The LNU Lightning Complex Fire is continuing to surge through the North Bay area on Thursday after scorching more than 215,000 acres of Solano, Yolo, Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties.

Containment of the series of wildfires that make up the LNU Complex Fire remained at 0% Thursday night, and more than 1,000 firefighters continued to battle the fires.

Cal Fire reported four people died in the series of LNU Complex fires, including three people in Napa County and one in Solano County. The fires have destroyed 480 structures and damaged another 125 while threatening more than 30,000 structures.

Cal Fire officials said Thursday night that they expect the complex of fires to grow significantly as extreme fire behavior continues to challenge firefighters, and the flames continue to make runs in different directions and impacting multiple communities.

Multiple fires have merged on the north side of Lake Berryessa into the Hennessey Fire, according to the Thursday night update from Cal Fire. Those fire continued to burn and spread into large areas of timber.

In Napa and Lake Counties, the Gamble, Green, Aetna, Markley, Spanish, Morgan and Round fires have merged with the Hennessey Fire. These combined fires were reported at 192,000 acres.

In Sonoma County, the Walbridge and Stewarts fires merged west of Healdburg and burned 20,000 acres, according to Cal Fire. The Meyers Fire, also in Sonoma County, had burned 3,000 acres north of Jenner.

The fire jumped Interstate 80, burned through dozens of Vacaville and Fairfield homes and forced the partial evacuation of Travis Air Force Base on Wednesday. But Cal Fire officials say weather conditions give them reason to believe they can start to control the edges of the blaze Thursday.

A Vacaville-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. troubleman (someone who helps identify the source of power outages) died while assisting first responders Wednesday, the utilities company confirmed. The troubleman, whose identity has yet to be released, is the first person to have died in connection to the fire, though four civilians have been injured.

The fire is one of more than 300 wildfires, 20 of which are major blazes, burning in California.

Where are California wildfires burning? Lightning-sparked blazes threaten thousands of homes

Here are the latest developments:

5 p.m.: Authorities find dead body on Pleasants Valley Road

Solano County Sheriff Thomas Ferrara announced Thursday afternoon that authorities found the body of a man found dead along Pleasants Valley Road. He announced the fatality while providing an update in a Facebook video on the LNU Complex Fire.

He said the man lived on Pleasants Valley Road. Ferrara said he could not offer any more details because the man’s family had not been properly notified. The man’s body was discovered as deputies and other officials went through the area to assess the damage caused by the wildfire.

He sent out five teams of deputies to north end of the county, including the English Hills Area and Pleasants Valley Road where most of the fire damage occurred. The teams included Cal Fire officials, building inspectors and hazardous material experts to determine when the area can be cleared to allow residents to return with deputies to inspect their properties.

4:40 p.m.: Mail carrier delivers along devastated rural road

Through rain and sleet, economic collapse, political fights and apocalyptic fires, Tim Gorman has a job to do. The Vacaville-area mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service on Thursday afternoon was rushing from mailbox to mailbox along Pleasants Valley Road.

Though what was left of many homes and ranchettes along the rural road connecting Vacaville to Lake Berryessa were still smoldering, Gorman was determined. People needed their medications, he said. And he wasn’t about to let them down if he could help it. He missed yesterday, after all.

“I gotta get this done,” he said, easing his mail truck back on the road and continuing south along his route.

Just north of Pleasants Valley Road, Doug Rogers, deputy chief from the Vacaville Fire Protection District, was coordinating damage assessments along Quail Canyon Road on Thursday afternoon. Local crews were sorting through what remained of burned out homes.

The assessments are tedious and include sifting through rubble and searching for potential human remains. Rogers was coordinating with Cal Fire and inmate crews from the nearby state prison — correctional officers were also helping with the work.

4:15 p.m.: Suisun City evacuation center

As winds started to pick up, Kris Lofthus started to worry. The recreation and parks marina director was hunkered down helping others maintain an evacuation center in Suisun City on Thursday afternoon, waiting to see whether fierce winds would pick up flames and jump start another round of warnings that would force hundreds to flee their homes.

About 70 evacuees slept in the Joseph A. Nelson Community Center the night before.

“If that happens, depending on which way (the winds) pushes the fire, there may be more evacuations towards Green Valley, northern Fairfield,” Lofthus said. “We’re not sure how bad it’s going to get.”

2:10 p.m.: Destruction on Pleasants Valley Road

Some of the worst damage in Vacaville came on Pleasants Valley Road, a long twisting back route with ranches, farmland and long private drives.

Few houses were spared from the fire’s path; the ones that were left standing were surrounded by fallen trees and downed power lines. At one intersection, a road sign had melted completely.

The street was desolate and quiet, with ash drifting from the orange sky and a thick smoke settled on the road by burned-out houses. Just past a blackened telephone poll, two cars were left with their windows shattered and rubber tires melted. A stone fireplace surrounded by charred trees and singed grass was all that stood at another decimated property.

Horses and goats spared by the path of the blaze grazed aimlessly next to metal roofs on the ground, the only thing left from nearby farmhouses. At wide expanses of burnt fields, deer hopped over mangled plastic fences.

Parts of the road look like Paradise after it was ravaged by the Camp Fire in November 2018, Solano County Office of Emergency Services manager Don Ryan told the Fairfield Daily Republic.

1:50 p.m.: Smoke, poor air quality shut down Sacramento State

Sacramento State has suspended all on-campus activities and asked non-essential employees to stay home until at least Saturday, the university announced Thursday afternoon.

TODAY’S AIR QUALITY

This live-updating map shows the combined readings for particulate matter and ozone.
AQI Animation - https://media.zenfs.com/en/sacramento_bee_mcclatchy_569/8a93f47c3b92fdbad99435bc80cab8bb
AQI Animation – https://media.zenfs.com/en/sacramento_bee_mcclatchy_569/8a93f47c3b92fdbad99435bc80cab8bb
Source: airnow.gov

Faculty and all students aside from those in the residence halls are being asked to leave campus as air quality hovers between 160-200 AQI, classified as “unhealthy” by the Environmental Protection Agency. Remote classes remain in effect.

Sacramento State’s academic year begins Wednesday and classes, most of which will be online only, will start on Aug. 31.

How do you keep wildfire smoke out of your house and car? Here are some tips

1:45 p.m.: More personnel arriving

On Tuesday, state officials announced they had requested some 375 fire engines from out of state to join the 6,900 firefighters deployed across the state battling more than 367 fires.

But many of those out-of-state crews had yet to arrive to relieve the firefighters, many of whom have been working 72-hour double shifts, said Brice Bennett, a Cal Fire spokesman.

“The goal is to get them here so we can put them to work and utilize them to provide some reprieve from our initial attack resources,” Bennett said. “We need to make sure we can get them rested and refueled. The firefight is long from over. We have a substantial number of fires going right, and we’re still on the upward swing from all these incidents from this lightning siege.”

The state is seeing a significant shortage of its primary “hand crews,” inmate firefighters who use hand tools and chainsaws to cut fire lines and protect homes.

1:30 p.m.: ‘I came home … and I cried’

Kimberly St. Clair-Davis had been monitoring the fires all day Wednesday. Her son, who will start a job with Cal Fire on Monday, was defending a family property near Lake Berryessa, so evacuations were already top of her mind, she said.

Her home in Fairfield’s Paradise 360 community is at the bottom of a grassy hill to the north. She said she received the emergency alert ordering evacuations and, within 10 minutes, the flames were right outside her kitchen window. She pounded on neighbors’ doors, told people there was no more time to pack, corralled her family and dogs, and hit the road.

Later, someone posted a photo to a community Facebook page, and the smoldering hills convinced St. Clair-Davis her new home was gone. She didn’t know what to expect Thursday. But when she pulled into the driveway, she found the neighborhood unscathed.

“I came home,” she said. “And I cried.”

She then walked part way up the blackened hill and stared at the neighborhood below her. The air was surprisingly clear. Car after car were silently parked in driveways.

“Surreal,” she said. “It puts things in perspective.”

Evacuations were chaotic, said Kristin Barnhart and her husband, Dean. They live near Paradise Valley Road and said traffic was stop-and-go as the residential routes jammed with cars. It strained the couple’s 1957 Ford Ranch Wagon, which broke down at one point.

“The smoke was unbelievable,” she said. “It was just getting darker and darker.”

Eventually, they made it to a hotel in Berkeley for the night. By noon Thursday, they were home and unloading their keepsakes. First out of the car, they joked: the family’s cache of guitars, guns and ammo in the ’57 Ford.

1 p.m.: Prisons untouched so far, but family members worry

On Wednesday, two of California’s prison facilities on the west side of Vacaville appeared to be in the fire’s path.

People with loved ones in California Medical Facility and California State Prison Solano contacted reporters, fearing incarcerated people were in harm’s way as the fire crossed I-80 and threatened the parched grassy hills behind the prisons.

“Their lives matter,” wrote one woman, who said she was trying unsuccessfully to reach the prison where her brother was to find out what was being done to protect people.

Fire officials scrapped a planned prescribed burn near the prison in June and rescheduled it as a smaller burn later that month.

It’s unclear what, if any, effect a smaller burn might have had in the area. But by midday Thursday, the hills behind the prisons remained untouched.

11:45 a.m.: Fire surpasses 131,000 acres

The LNU Lightning Complex Fire has burned through 131,000 acres of land in the 50 hours since it began Tuesday morning, Cal Fire announced at a press conference.

No civilians have been injured beyond the four announced Wednesday morning. Cal Fire estimated 105 structures have been destroyed and another 70 damaged, with 30,500 still at risk.

A Cal Fire incident commander said the troubleman was clearing power lines to make Gates Canyon safe for first responders to access when he died.

Some people had re-entered evacuation areas against first responders’ orders and have had to be rescued, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said. Cal Fire Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit Chief Shana Jones asked for residents’ cooperation and patience as nearly 600 firefighters continue to try to contain the blaze.

“Please be prepared. Please, when asked to do so, please evacuate. It’s important that you do your part so that we can help you,” Jones said. “It’s going to take time. This is a very large fire. It’s one of many in the state of California, and honestly our resources are stretched very far.”

10:20 a.m.: Firefighters ‘in a better spot than yesterday’

Cal Fire officials say they are starting Thursday out in much better shape than the previous day.

“We are starting the day off in a better spot than yesterday,” Cal Fire information officer Robert Foxworthy said. “We have more favorable conditions. Temperatures are not expected to be as high. We are not expecting large-scale winds like we have had. We are in a lot better place.”

Foxworthy warned, however, that most evacuation orders from Wednesday are still in place, and there remains a chance that more of them could be required.

“We went big on evacuations (Wednesday) already, but there is always the possibility of more today,” Foxworthy said.

Firefighters hope to make some progress today on controlling the edges of the fire, something they were not able to do on Wednesday when most of the fire fight involved trying to keep the blaze from entering residential areas.

“We are going to focus on life safety threat first. Second are structures. Last is perimeter control. It all depends on the fire activity. Perimeter control has been going on in small sections already.”

8:15 a.m.: Morning acreage numbers

At its morning update, Cal Fire said 131,000 acres, or 204 square miles, has burned in Solano, Napa, Lake, Yolo and Sonoma County. There was zero containment.

“Extreme fire behavior with short and long range spotting are continuing to challenge firefighting efforts,” Cal Fire wrote in a Thursday morning situation report.

The fire complex — which includes the Hennessey, Wallbridge, Aetna and several other fires — has destroyed 105 structures, damaged 70 others and continued to threaten over 30,000 more.

Huntington Beach Fire Department Drew DiPoala battles the LNU Lightning Complex fires at Serenity Hills Road on Wednesday, Aug 19, 2020 in Vacaville.
Huntington Beach Fire Department Drew DiPoala battles the LNU Lightning Complex fires at Serenity Hills Road on Wednesday, Aug 19, 2020 in Vacaville.

As many as 4,500 homes in the Vacaville area have been evacuated, Vacaville Fire Chief Kris Concepcion told The Sacramento Bee on Wednesday afternoon.

Those evacuations were followed by an even larger order for more than 10,000 residents to leave a swath of Sonoma County, including along the Russian River in the Guerneville and Rio Nido areas. A separate fire, the Walbridge Fire, was burning in that area. Other evacuations are taking place west of Healdsburg in the northern reaches of Sonoma’s wine country.

The Adventist St. Helena Hospital and the nearby community of Angwin in the mountains east of Napa Valley both were ordered evacuated Wednesday evening.

Evacuations were ordered just before 3 p.m. in Fairfield for residents in the Rancho Solano, Sanctuary and Rolling Hills neighborhoods. “Rancho Solano and Sanctuary neighborhoods, there is an immediate threat to life. This is a lawful order to leave now. The area is lawfully closed to public access,” the Fairfield Police Department said.

What fires are part of the LNU Complex?

The Gamble, Green, Markley, Spanish and Morgan fires merged with the larger Hennessey Fire on Wednesday, Cal Fire says. It has consumed at least 105,000 acres, officials said.

In Sonoma County, the Wallbridge Fire is burning 14,500 acres west of Healdsburg, and the Meyers Fire is 2,500 acres north of Jenner.

A new incident called the Aetna Fire has burned 4,500 acres in Napa and Lake counties.

A new incident known as the Round Fire has been mapped at 4,000 acres in Lake County.

Highway 128 is closed at Pleasants Valley Road and at Silverado Trail. Highway 1 is closed in parts of Sonoma County. Numerous other local roadways are closed by the fire complex.

LNU LIghtning Complex in Napa, Sonoma, Solano and Yolo counties

Source: National Interagency Fire Center

The Bee’s Michael McGough and Ryan Sabalow contributed to this report. Listen to our daily briefing:

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