Lightning Sparks 800-Plus Fires in California

More than 840 wildfires sparked by an “unprecedented” lightning storm are burning across Northern California, alarming the governor and requiring the help of firefighters from Nevada and Oregon.

A top state fire official standing at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s side offered a grim update. The figure was actually 842 fires, said Del Walters, assistant regional chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. All but a couple were in the northern part of the state.

“This is an unprecedented lightning storm in California, that it lasted as long as it did, 5,000 to 6,000 lightning strikes,” Walters said. “We are finding fires all the time.”

One fire had already blackened more than 10,000 acres — nearly 16 square miles — in a rural area of Lake County, about 120 miles north of San Francisco. No homes had been destroyed, but officials said voluntary evacuations were in place for residents of 36 homes.

A blaze that started in Napa County had moved into Solano County as it burned over an area more than 6 square miles. It was 60 percent contained and threatened about 250 homes about 40 miles southwest of Sacramento, said Kevin Colburn, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

No homes have been destroyed, and voluntary evacuations have been lifted.

A blaze that had charred nearly 6 square miles in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest about 160 miles north of Sacramento, was a threat to about 1,200 homes and several youth camps.

Assistance, mostly firefighting aircraft, had arrived from Nevada and Oregon in response to weekend requests. Schwarzenegger said he had enlisted the help “because you can never prepare for 500 or 700 or 800 fires all at the same time.”

Part of the reason for the swelling number of wildfires was that local and state officials were still counting after fierce thunderstorms touched off the blazes.

“We didn’t get real lucky with this lighting storm,” Walters said. “It wasn’t predicted — which often happens with these storms that come in off the Pacific, there’s no history of the weather as it approaches the shore — and so we got hammered.”

Mendocino County alone had 110 fires, with just 17 contained.

In Monterey County, a fire near the coast south of Big Sur was only 3 percent contained. It has consumed 7,015 acres since it was first reported.

Also in Monterey County, a wildfire west of King City in the Ventana Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest was 66 percent contained. it has burned 57,745 acres.

The Ventana Wilderness fire led to an emergency airlift of eight endangered California condors. Coast Guard helicopters carried the seven juveniles and one adult bird from a wildlife center to the Monterey Airport.

In New Mexico, crews dropped 11,500 incendiary balls to ignite unburned vegetation and halt a blaze that has charred more than 49,000 acres, largely on grazing allotments on federal land.

Lightning started that fire in the Lincoln National Forest about 20 miles southwest of Hope. It was not threatening any structures.

“The ranchers have already moved a lot of the cattle that were out there,” U.S. Forest Service fire information officer Deanna Younger said. The grazing areas “will be the main loss,” she said.