Weather helping crews but LNU fire in Vacaville, Napa, Sonoma tops 131K acres

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The LNU Lightning Complex Fire is continuing to surge through the North Bay area on Thursday after scorching more than 131,000 acres of Solano, Yolo, Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties.

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 on 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 several civilians have been injured.

It’s 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 in Solano County:

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.

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.

Click here for university president Robert S. Nelsen’s full comments.

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.

The PG&E employee who died Wednesday remains the only confirmed fatality in connection with the LNU complex. 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 Pleasant 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 contributed to this report. Listen to our daily briefing:

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