Two die as California wildfires force tens of thousands to flee choking air

At least two people have died as fast-moving wildfires threaten tens of thousands of homes across California.

Dozens of lightning-sparked California wildfires grew rapidly on Thursday, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate homes in the San Francisco Bay Area.

It is reported California has been hit by its worst lightning storms in nearly two decades.

Around 11,000 strikes ignited over 370 fires this week, fouling air quality for hundreds of miles and stretching firefighting resources to the limit, authorities said.

Collectively known as the LNU Complex Fire, they have doubled in size to 131,000 acres (53,000-hectares) since Wednesday, forming a "megafire" 10 times larger than New York's Manhattan island across Napa, Yolo, Solano and two other counties.

Two people were killed fighting the blazes as the state scrambles to find more firefighters.A t least four civilians were also injured in the LNU fire, according to Cal Fire.

A utility worker and helicopter pilot participating in the fire response died on Wednesday and there are fears of worse to come.

Authorities are warning all 40 million state residents to be ready to evacuate at a given moment, if necessary.

South of San Francisco, a cluster of lightning-strike fires doubled in size to 40,000 acres in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties on Thursday, injuring three first responders, forcing 22,000 to evacuate and destroying 20 structures, wildfire authority CalFire reported.

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The states historic parks are also under threat including Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California's oldest state park with some of its oldest redwood trees. It suffered extensive damage from the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, the state parks department said.

As the fire moved south, the University of California Santa Cruz called for voluntary evacuations from its campus on the northern flank of the coastal city.

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To the north, at least nine fires raced through hills in California's wine country about 35 miles (56 km) southwest of Sacramento, destroying over 105 homes and other structures.

Winds sent fire burning through the grass at 120 feet a minute and embers flew for over three-quarters of a mile to start new spot fires.

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"The fire is moving faster than we can engage it safely," Cal Fire Captain Stephen Volmer said in a video post.

Record-breaking heat baking the West Coast is caused by a vast atmospheric dome of high pressure hovering over the desert east of California. The system is siphoning off moisture and causing most precipitation to evaporate before it reaches the ground, sparking dry lightning strikes.

California has warmed 1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the beginning of the 20th century, and higher temperatures are blamed for longer and more intense fire seasons that have caused eight of its 10 largest wildfires in the last 15 years.

Governor Gavin Newsom requested 375 fire crews from out of state as resources ran thin, in part as prisoners normally conscripted into firefighting were locked down for Covid-19 or released from prison to slow the spread of the virus.

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