Sunday, September 20, 2020
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Northern California braces for more dry lightning as wildfires continue to scorch region

Northern California braced Sunday for more lightning strikes that could intensify the hundreds of wildfires roaring through the region that have already consumed more than 1 million acres.

The death toll from the fires, which began after thousands of lightning strikes last week, rose to six Sunday when authorities in Santa Cruz County found the body of a 70-year-old man in the mountains.

Chris Clark, chief deputy with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, told reporters that the man was found by helicopter in an area near the CZU Lightning fire, which had grown to 67,000 acres and was five percent contained. Clark did not identify the man, saying his family still needed to be notified.

“It’s one of the darkest periods we’ve been in with this fire,” Clark said.

Resident Alyssa Medina reacts after finding an intact cup amidst the burned remains of her home during the LNU Lightning Complex fire in Vacaville, California, on Sunday.
JOSH EDELSON / AFP – Getty Images

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The National Weather Service, meanwhile, issued its highest fire alert, a red flag warning, from the Oregon border to the Central Coast until Monday afternoon as remnants of Hurricane Genevieve moved up the Pacific Coast. Forecasters said frequent lightning was possible with gusty, erratic winds and little to no rain.

“We could see a repeat of what we saw last week — nearly 12,000 lightning strikes,” said Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, in a briefing Sunday.

The earlier strikes were part of a rare summer thunderstorm that sparked wildfires across Northern California, a region that saw record-low rainfall over the winter and a heatwave after the storm.

President Donald Trump declared a major disaster in the state Saturday as nearly 250,000 people remained under evacuation orders across the region, Berlant said. Hundreds of buildings have burned, according to CalFire.

A sprawling plume of smoke that drifted over much of the Bay Area created some of the worst air quality on the planet, NBC Bay Area reported.

Two fires that started during the storm are now the second and third largest in California history — the LNU Lightning Complex, which by Sunday afternoon had scorched 341,243 acres northeast of the San Francisco Bay Area, and the SCU Lightning Complex, which had burned 339,968 acres east of San Jose.

The fires were 17 percent and 10 percent contained, respectively.

Fourteen-thousand firefighters were working to contain nearly 600 blazes across California. The possibility of more wildfires comes after Gov. Gavin Newsom acknowledged last week that the recent round of lightning strikes had already stretched the state’s resources.

On Friday, Newsom said the state had asked for help from Australia and Canada. National Guard soldiers have been deployed in the effort, Berlant said, and counties and cities across the region have also dispatched firefighters and fire engines.

States across the West have sent dozens of extra fire engines, Berlant said, and hundreds more were being requested.

Tim Stelloh is a reporter for NBC News based in California.

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