ST. HELENA, Calif. (Reuters) – Firefighters aided by calmer winds made significant strides on Monday against flames wreaking havoc in northern California wine country, as a separate blaze – already the largest in state history – grew to over 1 million acres burned.
In Napa Valley’s wine-growing region, diminishing gusts late on Sunday and early on Monday helped crews gain some ground over the Glass Fire, after heavy gusts and scorching weather kept firefighters on the defensive over the weekend.
“We’re cautiously optimistic we’re going to get this thing under wraps pretty soon,” Cal Fire spokesman Dave Lauchner said of the Glass Fire, which erupted Sept. 27 near the Napa resort town of Calistoga, some 75 miles (120 km) north of San Francisco.
The 2020 wildfire season has shattered records, with scientists and state officials putting much of the blame on global warming.
The August Complex fire burning in and around the Mendocino National Forest between Napa and the Oregon border surpassed 1 million acres (405,000 hectares) on Monday, leaving a footprint greater than all California fires from 1932 to 1999 combined.
“If that’s not proof-point testament to climate change, I don’t know what is,” California Governor Gavin Newsom told a Monday news conference.
The 1-million-acre milestone marks California’s first “gigafire,” a term coined by academics to describe the growing presence and scope of massive wildfires in the U.S. West.
Despite its colossal size, the August Complex fire has burned in remote, sparsely populated areas, keeping property losses relatively low – about 160 buildings destroyed – though a contract firefighter was killed by the blaze.
GRAPHIC: Up in smoke – https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-WILDFIRES/WINE/bdwpkkmxmpm/index.html
By comparison, no serious injuries have been reported in the much smaller Glass Fire, but nearly 1,500 homes and other buildings have been reduced to ruins in Napa and neighboring Sonoma County, including at least two wineries.
The fire broke out in the midst of the region’s grape harvest after a spate of other large blazes during the summer, putting some of Napa-Sonoma’s 2020 vintage into question.,.
Since January, wildfires across California have burned well over 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares), or 6,250 square miles, nearly the combined land mass of Connecticut and Delaware, and more than twice California’s previous annual record from 2018.
The bulk of that acreage was incinerated amid an unprecedented outbreak of wildfires across the entire Western United States this summer, stoked by frequent, prolonged bouts of extreme heat, high winds and dry lightning storms.
Scientists have pointed to the region’s incendiary weather, along with supercharged fuel beds overgrown with tinder dry grass and scrub, as consequences of climate change.
California wildfires since January have claimed a total of 31 lives and destroyed nearly 8,700 structures.
The August Complex alone, sparked by lightning on Aug. 17 and now 54% contained, has burned twice as much landscape as the next largest California wildfire on record – the 460,000-acre Mendocino Complex of July 2018.
Nearly 2,400 personnel are on the front lines of the monster blaze, including National Guard troops and firefighters from as far away as Texas and New Jersey.
Five of California’s 20 largest wildfires on record have occurred in 2020, according to Cal Fire.
(Reporting by Adrees Latif in St. Helena, Calif., and Mimi Dwyer in Los Angeles; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler and Richard Pullin)