California wildfires: Extreme heat turns state into a furnace

A new rash of fires stoked by extreme heat has cloaked much of the state in smoke. PHOTO: AFP

SAN FRANCISCO (NYTIMES) - It was an old company town tucked away in the Sierra Nevada, where life revolved around shifts at the Edison hydroelectric plant.

Neighbours visited at the post office and had coffee at a general store that smoked its own meats. And every wildfire season, the threat of destruction loomed like the granite rock faces towering over their town.

On Monday (Sept 7), residents of Big Creek, California, population 200, began coming to grips with the reality that this time much of their tiny community in the Sierra National Forest northeast of Fresno had burned.

"We lost our home," said Nettie Carroll, 40, who taught science and has lived in the area for 16 years. "It looks like everything is completely gone."

As California endures one of its worst wildfire seasons ever, a new rash of fires stoked by extreme heat has destroyed homes, cloaked much of the state in smoke, forced thousands of people to evacuate and threatened another round of rolling blackouts.

One of the fires, a 7,000-acre (2,800 hectare) blaze in San Bernardino County erupted after a family set off a "smoke-generating pyrotechnic device" to announce their baby's sex.

Big Creek residents who fled the galloping Creek Fire over the weekend said that more than a dozen homes had been incinerated. The Creek Fire had burned nearly 79,000 acres by Monday and was zero per cent contained, according to Cal Fire, the state fire agency.

From hotel rooms in Fresno and Modesto or family members' spare bedrooms where they had fled, Big Creek's evacuees spent Monday sending one another photographs of flames and char and comparing notes on what had survived and what had not.

The school, which has just 47 students, appeared to suffer some damage but was still standing, Big Creek residents said. They said the community church, volunteer fire department and post office all apparently survived.

A father and his son wait to be evacuated in California, US, on Sept 7, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The fire forced workers to evacuate the 1,000-megawatt Big Creek hydroelectric project, which can power 650,000 homes and was America's first large-scale pumped hydro plant of its kind with the ability to produce power and store electricity. There was no immediate indication the plant had been damaged.

As the fire raged, a single worker at the plant remained in the area to help feed firefighters at the Shaver Lake Community Center before leaving on Sunday as conditions worsened, said David Song, an Edison spokesman.

Chris Donnelly, the fire chief in nearby Huntington Lake, said one of the biggest challenges now was getting basic information about the fire's spread and how wind and weather were hampering efforts to contain it. Five cabins burned in his community.

"Cellphones are down, all the landlines are down," Donnelly said. "My assistant chief has to drive to the top of a ski lift in order to get a cell tower. It's really hard to know what's going on."

With extreme heat roasting California on Monday, fire crews faced another difficult day.

Similar scenes were unfolding across parched Western US states. A fire burned 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the homes in the tiny town of Malden, Washington, south of Spokane, Whitman County sheriff's officers told KXLY News.

A dog stands atop bags and camping gear during preparations for evacuation in California, US, on Sept 7, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Record-setting temperatures eased slightly on Monday from a day earlier, but highs in Southern California were predicted to soar above 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43.3 degrees Celsius), and meteorologists warned residents from Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area to guard against another day of oppressive heat and dangerously foul air.

The triple-digit temperatures and the Creek Fire nearly overwhelmed Southern California Edison's electric system, threatening outages as people turned up their air-conditioners and sought refuge at cooling centres.

The electricity demand in Southern California broke records at Edison, the state's second largest investor-owned utility. Saturday's electricity use reached 22,877 megawatts, beating the previous record of 21,092 megawatts on July 22, 2006. Then on Sunday, electricity demand topped the day before, setting a record for Edison at 23,066.

The California Independent System Operator, which manages 80 per cent of the state's electricity system, said during a news conference on Monday that cooler temperatures had eased demand but that wildfires and strong winds were still causing concern.

The agency issued its third straight day of alerts on Monday to conserve electricity as temperatures remained high and fires engulfed areas near electrical equipment.

High in the Sierra Nevada and 60m Shaver Lake, the Edison plant has long been the centre of life in Big Creek. Workers lived in Edison-owned houses and sent their children to the local school, which served kindergartners through eighth graders. High schoolers had to take a 90-minute bus ride to the nearest school.

"It was like a little throwback to the 1950s," said Erik Larson, a pastor at the community church. "It's an oasis. You're up in the mountains. It was just a great place."

As the fire grew closer, Larson and his family left early Saturday morning after he cleared brush and wood away from the parsonage where they lived and hosed down the decks and perimeter of the building.

They brought just two days' worth of clothing because the fire still did not seem like a huge threat, but later learned that the parsonage was one of the structures that had burned down. He and other residents who lost homes said they had been flooded with offers of help.

"People around us have really rallied," he said. "We're just not sure what to do next." The surrounding area is also a popular summertime retreat of cabins, campgrounds and camps for scouts and church groups, but it became a fiery trap over the weekend.

Alec Ziff, 26, and Nick Meyers, 32, who both live in Santa Monica, had gone camping at Mammoth Pool Reservoir for the weekend to celebrate Ziff's birthday. But what was supposed to be a relaxing weekend turned into a 30-hour ordeal of waiting to be rescued after the roads were blocked by wreckage from the fires.

Military helicopters landed on Saturday night and evacuated most of the roughly 200 people who had been trapped at the reservoir, but Ziff and Meyers assumed the helicopters were for people who had been burned, so they stayed behind with roughly 15 other people.

So many people had left belongings behind that they weren't worried about food or water, they said. But by Sunday morning, the smoke had become suffocating, and in the late afternoon, they lost cell service.

"We were essentially beyond stranded," Ziff said.

He was overjoyed when, in the evening, he saw three people with flashlights, who turned out to be from the US Forest Service, walking down the hill from the parking lot. They had cleared the road, which had been blocked by burned trees and cars, and they led the stranded campers in a car caravan on a three-hour trip over back roads to Bass Lake. Ziff and Meyers then went to a Red Cross centre in Oakhurst, and they were given a hotel room in Oakhurst.

By the time they got to their hotel, it was midnight, and Ziff's birthday. They celebrated with a few beers and a shower.

"The best part of it was the shower," Meyers said.

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