More than 42,000 Californians evacuate as state battles out-of-control wildfires

Firefighters battle flames during the Caldor Fire in Kyburz, California, on August 21.
CNN  — 

More than 42,000 Californians have been forced to flee their homes as nine large wildfires continue to burn out of control in the northern part of the state, prompting Gov. Gavin Newsom to request a major disaster declaration from President Biden.

The Caldor Fire, which has scorched 106,562 acres, is the top firefighting priority in the nation, according to Chief Thom Porter of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (Cal Fire).

Officials fear the fire, which is just 5% contained, may push its way into the populated Lake Tahoe Basin, and they warned all Californians to be ready to evacuate.

“I personally don’t believe the fire is going to get into the basin proper,” Porter said of Lake Tahoe. “But I could be born wrong by that. The weather has outstripped and Mother Nature has taken over and taken fires like the Dixie to places that I never thought possible.”

Thick smoke from the raging wildfire turned the sky over Lake Tahoe an ominous orange on Monday, with the Environmental Protection Agency reporting hazardous air quality in the region.

The Dixie Fire – the second-largest fire in state history – which has been burning for more than a month, has grown so large that its perimeter stretches more than 500 square miles. That blaze has swelled to more than 725,000 acres and is now 40% contained.

Two other large fires, the Walker Fire and the French Fire, are still growing, and each inferno has its own specific needs, said Porter, who is helping coordinate the massive effort to deploy resources, including firefighters, aircraft, and equipment to each area as appropriate.

“We’re also working to make sure that we’re resetting and getting our own people home and rested so we can sustain this fight. This is a marathon,” said Porter, noting that late August is about the middle point of the season for large and damaging fires that are expected to burn into the deep fall.

If granted, the presidential declaration would help provide help with housing, unemployment, counseling, and medical and legal services. Public assistance for repairs and replacement of schools, roads, utilities also would be included.

Several counties have already been declared states of emergency.

Flames prompt closure of 9 federal forests

Nine national forests in California were closed Monday.

The US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region issued an emergency forest service closure through at least September 6, citing “extreme fire conditions throughout northern California, and strained firefighting resources throughout the country.”

“These temporary closures are necessary to ensure public and firefighter safety, as well as reduce the potential for new fire starts,” regional forester Jennifer Eberlien said.

The closures include Tahoe National Forest, Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, Plumas National Forest, Lassen National Forest, Mendocino National Forest, Klamath National Forest, Six Rivers National Forest, Shasta-Trinity National Forest and Modoc National Forest.

The forest service said anyone violating the order could face fines up to $5,000 for an individual and $10,000 for an organization, as well as up to six months in jail.

Additionally, the Eldorado National Forest, also in California, was closed on August 17 due to the Caldor Fire. That closure will last through at least September 30, the agency said.

The emergency closures in California come as 93 large active fires and complexes have burned 2,503,430 acres across 13 states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).

So far this year, more than 41,000 fires have scorched 4,575,051 acres, NIFC data showed. That’s more than a million acres higher than the nearly 3,300,00 acres burned by this time last year.

Some very minor relief is in the forecast as an onshore flow into the Northwest has helped calm fire conditions and clear lingering smoke, CNN meteorologist Michael Guy said.

Winds along the frontal boundary of a cold front moving into the area could push some big fires into new acreage, but the next week will see cooler temperatures and higher humidity, which should increase containment, Guy said.

While there’s no significant rain to speak of, the drought monitor in the West shows “miniscule” signs of improvement,” Guy said. “A little is better than none or worse. So the little bit of rain that was received did put a hair scratch (not a dent) in the West’s drought.”

Caldor Fire burns more than 500 structures, threatens thousands more

The Caldor Fire destroyed 557 structures as of Monday and threatened another 17,488, fire officials said. More than 1,600 firefighters are assigned to it.

Parts of El Dorado County are under evacuation orders or warnings. An evacuation warning is also in place in parts of neighboring Amador County.

“This year what we’re seeing more than ever is a set of fuel conditions that many of our professionals that have spent their whole careers fighting fire have never seen before,” El Dorado National Forest Supervisor Jeff Marsolais said in a community briefing Saturday evening.

“The system is as taxed as it has ever been,” he said of firefighting resources. “And our folks on the ground are doing everything they can within their power.”

The Caldor Fire was also cited as the reason two police officers from Galt, California, a small city south of Sacramento, were critically injured in a head-on collision while responding to the fire for traffic management, California’s Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci said.

Investigators don’t yet know what caused the fire to start.

Dixie Fire spread slows

Cows graze in front of a burning hillside during the Dixie Fire in Genesee, California, on August 21.

The Dixie Fire, the nation’s largest active fire, has destroyed more than 1,200 structures and threaten another 12,000.

Evacuation warnings are in place in portions of Plumas, Butte and Lassen counties, according to Cal Fire. In Tehama County, evacuation orders were downgraded Monday to warnings and warnings in three areas were lifted.

“Fire remained active until after midnight. Smoke settled back over the fire in the early morning hours, reducing fire activity,” Cal Fire said in a Monday update on the fire.

“Cooler weather and increasing humidity slowed rates of spread, with isolated torching still observed. Smoke settled back over the fire in the early morning hours. A much quieter weather patterns is shaping up for most of this week,” the update said.

CNN’s Dakin Andone, Michael Guy and Kay Jones contributed to this report.