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Firefighters report some success in California, brace for more lightning

by Darren Sabreda, San Jose Mercury News |

Officials reported Sunday morning that they have had success battling the CZU Lightning complex fires in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties over the previous 24 hours but were bracing for more challenges, as a new weather system threatened more dry lightning and possible wildfire starts.

As of 6 a.m. Sunday, the fire had burned 71,000 acres and was 8 percent contained, with more than 24,000 structures threatened and 129 structures destroyed, Cal Fire officials said. It was unclear how many of those structures were residential homes and commercial structures.

Officials also reported that 1,349 personnel, including some from out of state, were fighting the CZU fires.

A break in the weather Saturday allowed firefighters to accomplish some of their strategic goals, officials said.

A fire commander’s vehicle in the evacuated zone was broken into while the commander was directing personnel, officials said. The unidentified thief or thieves stole personal belongings, including his wallet, and drained his bank account. officials said.

“That’s the extent that these people have gone,”  Cal Fire Chief Mark Brunton said.

Elsewhere, the larger SCU Lightning Complex, with fires in Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, Stanislaus, and San Joaquin counties, continued to expand, reaching some 340,000 acres, with 10 percent containment as of 7 a.m.

Cal Fire officials issued an immediate evacuation order at 3 a.m. Sunday in Alameda County south of Welch Creek Road to the fire perimeter and the Alameda/Santa Clara County line east of Calaveras Road at Welch Creek Road to the fire perimeter.

In the north zone of the CZU Lightning complex, the clearer air Saturday allowed firefighters to use six water-dropping helicopters to shower the area throughout the day, slowing the movement of the fire and allowing crews to move in to establish lines, officials said.

Beaches in Half Moon Bay are closed, officials added.

In the southern zone, firefighters improved their secondary line above UC Santa Cruz and mitigated the spread south toward Santa Cruz and Capitola.

In the Boulder Creek area, officials said they were able to keep the fire well above that community but smoke conditions remained heavy. Some progress was made, officials said, but not as much as they would like.

In the Ben Lomond area, officials said the fire has progressed no farther than the top quarter of Alba Road.

“That’s where we had a significant amount of resources throughout yesterday and into last night protecting the community of Ben Lomond,” Brunton said.

Progress has been slow in the Bonny Doon area, where the fire has been widespread, officials said. But there were no reports of structural damage overnight, which firefighters viewed as a win given the heavy damage in that community throughout the week.

Officials urged people to stay away from the evacuated zones.

Saturday night was fairly quiet in Sonoma County, and firefighters succeeded in keeping the Walbridge Fire from making any significant new pushes toward the towns of Healdsburg or Guerneville, Cal Fire officials reported Sunday during their morning briefing on the LNU Lightning Complex fires.

The same was true of the Hennessy Fire in Lake County.

“They were definitely able to make some progress,” Cal Fire spokesman Jeff Chumbley said.

The LNU complex, with fires in Napa, Sonoma, Yolo, Lake and Stanislaus counties, was reported to be at 17 percent containment Sunday morning, with more than 340,000 acres consumed.

Sunday evening could prove to be a key time. Cal Fire officials warned crews to be alert for every firefighter’s worst nightmare — more dry lightning strikes — especially after 6 p.m.

New fires would spread already-shorthanded crews even thinner. Firefighters coming back to the Calistoga base camp to rest might be immediately pulled back to a fire, Chumbley said.

The forecast also predicts drier weather Sunday than in the past few days, Cal Fire officials warned firefighters. And Sunday evening is expected to see erratic wind gusts – which could spur dangerous, sudden changes in fire direction.