The fires have torched more than 900,000 acres.
Firefighters are struggling to get a handle on the 560 wildfires that are spreading rapidly throughout California, torching more than 900,000 acres of land and forcing more than 119,000 people to flee their homes.
Despite the 12,000 firefighters currently battling the blazes, about a dozen major fires continue to grow, particularly in Northern California, where two fire groupings are now some of the largest in the state’s history. Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state was “putting everything we have” into the firefight, but that it was not enough, and that he had asked for help from other states — including on the East Coast — and from Australia.
Even as the fires grow further, forecasters with the National Weather Service’s Bay Area office warned that there could be more dry thunderstorms this weekend, potentially bringing a dangerous combination of lightning and wind to an already-burning region. Many of the current fires were ignited during an extraordinary period of more than 12,000 lightning strikes last weekend, what fire officials have called a “lightning siege.”
The group of fires known as the L.N.U. Lightning Complex in Napa Valley continues to swell. It is now 302,388 acres — the second-largest fire in California history — and has burned through nearly 500 buildings, many of which were homes in Vacaville, near Sacramento. That fire grouping is 15 percent contained.
The C.Z.U. Lightning Complex has led fire officials to order 77,000 people in San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties to evacuate, including the entire University of California, Santa Cruz, campus. That group of fires has grown to 63,000 acres, consumed almost 100 buildings and is 5 percent contained.
East of Silicon Valley, the S.C.U. Lightning Complex group of about 20 fires — largely burning in less-populated areas — has grown to 274,968 acres and is now the fourth-largest in state history. It is 10 percent contained.
Smoke from the fires is reaching far away, making the air unhealthy to breathe in many areas, particularly in Concord, which is east of Oakland, where the air quality index has passed 150, meaning the air is unhealthy for everyone. Smoke from the fires has been spotted as far away as Nebraska.
The damage to redwoods is deeply personal for many admirers.
Towering over the coast, straining for sun as they’ve done since before there was such a thing as California, the old-growth giants of Big Basin Redwoods State Park stood in flames on Friday. John Gallagher thought of his sons. Darryl Young thought of his father. Laura McLendon thought of her wedding day.
“It was evening and the sun was just starting to slant through the trees,” said Ms. McLendon, a conservationist in San Francisco who married her husband in the park three years ago next week. “We could hear birds. It was magical. Like a time out of time.”
Now the 118-year-old state park, California’s oldest — the place where Mr. Gallagher hiked with his children in June, where Mr. Young learned to camp in his childhood, and where Ms. McLendon repeated her vows in a stand of 500-year-old redwoods — has been devastated. Park officials closed it on Wednesday, another casualty of the wildfires that have wracked the state with a vengeance that has grown more apocalyptic every year.
From the Southern California deserts to the Sierra Nevada to the vineyards and movie sets and architectural landmarks left by modern mortals, little of the state has been left unscathed by wildfire. In the past several years, infernos have scorched the Yosemite National Park, blackened the Joshua Tree National Park’s palm-strewn Oasis of Mara, damaged the Paramount Ranch and eviscerated Malibu summer camps beloved for generations.
In a state that has historically preferred to focus on resurrection, the catalog of loss has again expanded, with the heartbreaking news from Big Basin at the top.
Again, California is aflame. What is it about California that makes wildfires so catastrophic?
There are four key ingredients. The first is the state’s changing climate. California has always had wildfires, since its low-rain summers tend to dry out vegetation, which serves as fuel when sparks strike. And while the role of climate change in any particular fire takes time and scientific inquiry to establish, the link between climate change and bigger fires is inextricable.
“Behind the scenes of all of this, you’ve got temperatures that are about two to three degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than they would’ve been without global warming,” said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. That dries out vegetation even more, making it more likely to burn.
The second factor is people. Wildfires can be caused by lightning strikes, but human activity is a more common culprit — often through downed power lines. People are increasingly moving into areas near forests, known as the urban-wildland interface, that are inclined to burn.
Oddly enough, the nation’s history of fire suppression has also made present-day wildfires worse; when fires are fought successfully, many plants that would be burned accumulate instead. The final major factor is the annual Santa Ana winds, which can further dry out vegetation and blow embers around. The Santa Ana winds drive a second fire season that generally runs from October through April. So fire season is far from over.
Reporting was contributed by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Kellen Browning, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Shawn Hubler, Kendra Pierre-Louis and John Schwartz.