SCOTTS VALLEY, Calif. (AP) — Firefighters battling three massive wildfires in Northern California got a break from the weather early Monday as humidity rose and there was no return of the onslaught of lightning strikes that ignited the infernos a week earlier.
The region surrounding San Francisco Bay remained under extreme fire danger until late afternoon amid the possibility of of lightning and gusty winds, but fire commanders said the weather had aided their efforts so far.
“Mother Nature's helped us quite a bit," said Billy See, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection incident commander for a complex of fires burning south of San Francisco.
The three big fires around the Bay Area and many others burning across the state have put nearly 250,000 people under evacuation orders and warnings and authorities renewed warnings for anxious homeowners to stay away from the evacuation zones.
Six people who returned to a restricted area south of San Francisco to check on their properties were surprised by fire and had to be rescued, the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office said.
The death toll from the fires reached 7 over the weekend after authorities battling a big fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco announced the discovery of the body of a 70-year-old man in a remote area called Last Chance.
He had been reported missing and police had to use a helicopter to reach the area of about 40 off-the-grid homes at the end of a windy, steep dirt road north of the city of Santa Cruz.
The area was under an evacuation order and Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Chris Clark said the discovery of the man's body was a reminder of how important it was for residents to evacuate from fire danger zones.
“This is one of the darkest periods we’ve been in with this fire,” he said.
California over the last week has been hit by 650 wildfires across the state, many sparked by more than 12,000 lighting strikes recorded since Aug. 15. There are 14,000 firefighters, 2,400 engines and 95 aircraft battling the fires.
The Santa Cruz fire is one of three “complexes,” or groups of fires, burning on all sides of the San Francisco Bay Area. All were started by lightning.
Fire crew made slow progress battling the blazes over the weekend, which included a break in the unseasonably warm weather and little wind.
But the National Weather Service issued a “red flag” warning through Monday afternoon for the drought-stricken area, meaning extremely dangerous fire conditions exist, including high temperatures, low humidity, lightning and wind gusts up to 65 mph (105 kph) that officials said “may result in dangerous and unpredictable fire behavior.”
A fire in wine country north of San Francisco and another southeast of the city have within a week have grown to be two of the three largest fires in state history, with both burning more than 500 square miles (1,295 square kilometers).
The wine country fire has been the most deadly and destructive blaze, accounting for five deaths and 845 destroyed homes and other buildings. Three of the victims were in a home that was under an evacuation order.
Officials surveying maps at command centers are astonished by the sheer size of the fires, said Cal Fire spokesman Brice Bennett.
“You could overlay half of one of these fires and it covers the entire city of San Francisco,” Bennett said Sunday.
In Southern California, an 11-day-old blaze held steady at just under 50 square miles (106 square kilometers) near Lake Hughes in the northern Los Angeles County mountains. Rough terrain, hot weather and the potential for thunderstorms with lightning strikes challenged firefighters on Sunday.
Authorities said their firefighting effort in Santa Cruz was hindered by people who refused to evacuate and those who were using the chaos to loot. Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart said 100 officers were patrolling and anyone not authorized to be in an evacuation zone would be arrested.
“What we’re hearing from the community is that there’s a lot of looting going on,” Hart said.
He and county District Attorney Jeff Rosell expressed anger at what Rosell called the “absolutely soulless” criminals victimizing people already victimized by the fire. Among them was a fire commander who was robbed when he left his fire vehicle to help direct operations.
Someone entered the 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.
“I can’t imagine a bigger lowlife,” Hart said.
Holly Hansen, who fled the wine country fire, was among evacuees from the community of Angwin allowed Sunday to return home for one hour to retrieve belongings. She and her three dogs waited five hours in her SUV for their turn. Among the items she took with her were photos of her pets.
“It’s horrible when you have to think about what to take,” she said. “I think it’s a very raw human base emotion to have fear of fire and losing everything. It’s frightening.”
Antczak reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press journalists Christopher Weber in Los Angeles and Aron Ranen in Angwin, California, contributed to this report.