‘Gutting experience’: California fire evacuees begin to return home to assess the damage | US news

As firefighters continued beating back the massive fires burning through northern California, thousands of evacuees began to return home.

Many residents across the region face uncertain, unsettling days ahead as officials assess damage from the blazes, which have killed at least seven people, scorched more than 1.2m acres and destroyed nearly 2,000 homes and structures.

A bout of calm, cool weather and humidity in recent days has broken the prolonged, scorching heatwave and freakish dry lightning storm that set off some of the largest conflagrations on record in California.

“We’re starting to see a lot of great progress,” said Mark Brunton, a battalion chief with Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency. Crews had been able to hold a line against the northern edge of the CZU Lightning Complex fire, which had threatened to spill into Silicon Valley, he said at a press conference early Thursday morning. “As far as the operation to fully extinguish it, it’s a slow, painstaking process,” he said.

Although climate scientists and firefighters have “known for a long time” that fires in California are going to get more extreme and more destructive due to climate change, the scope and size of the current flames are “surprising”, said Chris Field, who directs the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

“It’s shocking to see the number of fires occurring concurrently – just hundreds,” Field told the Guardian. “And it’s shocking to see the fires grow to over a million acres. This is a truly gigantic event.”

Despite successes in containing the flames in that region, they grew about 200 acres overnight and crews were continuing to search for two men who had gone missing. Firefighters and utility workers are clearing debris to make way for those returning home.

Katie Giannuzzi reacts as she and her family see the burned remains of their home during the LNU Lightning Complex fire in Vacaville, California.

Katie Giannuzzi reacts as she and her family see the burned remains of their home during the LNU Lightning Complex fire in Vacaville, California. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Many, however, were left with nowhere to return.

Sarah Fulop-Furlano, 41, had evacuated with her husband and three children nearly two weeks ago, not long after she saw the first flashes of lightning behind the redwood trees that stood near the family’s home in a remote community called Bonny Doon in the Santa Cruz mountains.

She assumed they’d soon return to join their cat, Mama Kitty and their five chickens. As the blaze moved furiously up the mountainside, it became increasingly clear that wouldn’t be the case.

“It got really big and out of control really fast,” Fulop-Furlano said of the fire. As her husband raced toward the house in one last effort to salvage what he could, the sky was glowing orange and he could feel the encroaching heat of the blaze.

“It was just eerie. There was no sound – no birds, no wildlife, nothing,” said Fulop-Furlano. As he stood contemplating what else he could save, a gust of wind blew a children’s toy across the driveway, and he knew the flames had arrived.

A day after the blaze and still unable to return to their home, Fulop-Furlano recognized her son’s burnt tricycle, standing amid smoldering ashes, in a photo that was circulating the internet. “Seeing that photo was the first time it sunk in for me just how devastating this fire was,” she said.

Some of her neighbors are among those who defied evacuation orders and formed pop-up firecrews that stayed behind to protect their homes from blazes.

“I know this has been catastrophic across the state and Cal Fire is stretched so thin, but there was just a mentality that ‘If Cal Fire isn’t up here, we’re going to do it ourselves’,” she said.

Now, the Fulop-Furlano family is undergoing the “gutting experience of trying to itemize what we lost”, knowing that the toughest losses are the priceless heirlooms that can’t be claimed on an insurance list.

Iterations of her story are scattered all across and around the San Francisco Bay area, where residents have been confronted with a barrage of blazes – including the second and third largest wildfires on record – before California’s peak fire season has even kicked off.

The entrace to the Spanish Flat Mobile Villa mobile home park near Lake Berryessa, California.

The entrace to the Spanish Flat Mobile Villa mobile home park near Lake Berryessa, California. Photograph: Peter Dasilva/EPA

The LNU Lightning Complex fires, searing through California’s wine country, had burned through nearly 369,000 acres and in recent days had been neck and neck with the concurrent SCU Lightning Complex fire east of the San Francisco Bay for the rank of second-largest fire in recorded California history.

Though reinforcements from other states and countries have aided fire crews, spread thin as hundreds of concurrent fires burned across the state, harsh, dry weather conditions over the preceding fortnight has desiccated fire-fueling vegetation, which fed and stoked giant, unwieldy blazes.

Fresh evacuation orders were issued after the LNU fire jumped a highway and threatened homes in Colusa and Yolo counties. The fire has killed at least five people, including Douglas Mai, 82, and Leon Bone, 64, of Vacaville.

Smoke from fires across the west has carried across the country, choking some regions with toxic smoke – and leaving those with respiratory conditions who are already susceptible to deadly complications from contracting Covid-19, especially vulnerable.

Evacuees throughout the state have had to weigh the risks of staying with family or at evacuation centers, where they might spread or contract coronavirus, against the costs of isolating up in pricey hotel rooms or staying in their vehicles.

Wildfire scientists and state officials have warned of a bleak outlook over the coming months. “We are putting every single asset we possibly can, pointing every conceivable resource, to battle these historic wildfires,” Governor Gavin Newsom said at a press conference on Wednesday. The onslaught of flames this month, “puts us not only on pace to have a historic wildfire season but actually sets the pace for a historic wildfire season”, he said.

Autumn, when powerful offshore winds have traditionally stoked the biggest, most destructive fires in California, is still to come. “The fact that we’ve had really serious fires in August doesn’t decrease the risk of serious fires in October and November at all,” Field said.

Although California’s landscape is adapted to fires, climate change has fueled more extreme, destructive blazes – and each day, the risks of bigger and more catastrophic disasters are gaining traction, Field said. “I think of it like – we’re in a car, trying to make a sharp turn at 85 miles per hour,” he explained. As the climate crisis accelerates, “it’s that we could barely stay on the road, and now the risk is we’re going to swerve off.”

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