Three massive wildfires chewed through parched Northern California landscape Sunday as firefighters raced to dig breaks and make other preparations ahead of a frightening weather system. That system was packing high winds and more of the lightning that sparked the huge blazes and scores of other fires around the state, putting nearly a quarter-million people under evacuation orders and warnings.
At the CZU Lightning Complex fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains, south of San Francisco, authorities said their effort was hindered by people who refused to heed evacuation orders and those who were using the chaos to steal. Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart said 100 officers were patrolling and anyone not authorized to be in an evacuation zone would be arrested.
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“What we’re hearing from the community is that there’s a lot of looting going on,” Hart said. He said eight people have been arrested or cited and “there’s going to be more.” He and county District Attorney Jeff Rosell expressed anger at what Rosell called the “absolutely soulless” people who seek to victimize those already victimized by the fire. Among the victims was a fire commander who was robbed while helping coordinate efforts on Saturday.
Someone entered the commander’s fire vehicle and stole personal items, including a wallet and “drained his bank account,” said Chief Mark Brunton, a battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
“I can’t imagine a bigger low-life,” Hart said, promising to catch him and vowing “the DA is going to hammer him.” The Santa Cruz fire is one of the “complexes,” or groups of fires, burning on all sides of the San Francisco Bay Area. They were started by lightning strikes that were among 12,000 registered in the state in the past week.
The National Weather Service issued a “red flag” warning through Monday afternoon for the drought-stricken area, meaning extreme fire conditions including high temperatures, low humidity and wind gusts up to 65 mph (105 kph) that “may result in dangerous and unpredictable fire behavior.” In nearly a week, firefighters have gotten no more than the 17% containment for the LNU Lightning Complex fire in wine country north of San Francisco. It’s been the most destructive blaze, accounting for five deaths and 845 destroyed homes and other buildings. It and a fire burning southeast of the Bay Area are among the five largest fires in state history, with both burning more than 500 square miles (1,295 square kilometers).
In Southern California, an 11-day-old blaze held steady at just under 50 square miles (106 square kilometers) near Lake Hughes in northern Los Angeles County mountains. Rough terrain, hot weather and the potential for thunderstorms with lightning strikes challenged firefighters.