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California wildfires: Utility worker dies fighting raging blaze

A Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) utility worker and a helicopter pilot have died while battling California’s wildfires as at least 24 blazes continued to rage through the state on Thursday, threatening thousands of homes.

In central California, pilot Michael Fournier, 52, was killed while on a water dropping mission in western Fresno County Wednesday morning when his helicopter crashed. 

Fournier was working with Fillmore-based Guardian Helicopters, which had a contract with the state fire agency to provide emergency services, said Zoe Keliher, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

First responders spent more than 6 hours recovering his body from the wreckage. The NTSB said an investigation is underway.  

The PG&E worker died while assisting at a fire in the Vacaville area between San Francisco and Sacramento but the circumstances around his death weren’t immediately clear.

The utility confirmed the death but gave no details. 

According to KPIX-TV, the worker was found in a vehicle and CPR was performed but he was pronounced dead at a hospital, said a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection statement.  

The fires, many caused by lightning and sometimes pushed by strong winds, had burned hundreds of thousands of acres as they chewed through brushland, rural areas, canyon country and dense forest to the north, east and south of San Francisco. 

Fires also burned in the Sierra Nevada and Southern California wild lands. In addition to about two dozen major blazes, small fires kept erupting, though most were quickly stopped. 

California had recorded nearly 11,000 strikes in 72 hours, Gov Gavin Newsom said Wednesday. Two fires in Sonoma County prompted evacuation orders for 8,000 residents near the Russian River Wednesday.

Residents of Healdsburg, which has a population of about 12,000, were warned late Wednesday night to be ready to flee.

Ash and smoke filled the air in San Francisco from at least seven fires — known as the LNU Lightning Complex Fires — that had burned more than 100 buildings, including some homes, and threatened 25,000 others in Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo and Solano counties.

‘Fires are making runs in multiple directions and impacting multiple communities. A critically dry air mass is moving over the area bringing strong winds,’ Cal Fire statement said Wednesday night.

Travis Air Force Base ordered non-mission essential personnel to evacuate, officials said

Residents in nearby Vacaville, a city of about 100,000, were roused before dawn Wednesday by orders to flee.

Karen Hansen had fled late Tuesday as flames approached her small farm.

‘The whole sky was red orange and it was coming over the hill there and it was massive. I’ve never seen anything like it and it only took a few minutes to get here,’ she said.

The family fled with some animals but had to leave two beloved horses. They returned Wednesday to find the house and barn destroyed, but Hansen was thrilled to see that her horses had survived.

John Gardiner, 60, stayed up all night after receiving an alert from a neighbor of oncoming fire just before midnight Wednesday.

‘It was incredible — things swirling, winds just whipping through like a howling, ripping sound and then you could hear explosions going off,’ he said. ‘You can taste smoke in your mouth.’

His house survived — for the moment.

In eastern San Francisco Bay, a cluster of 20 separate lightning-sparked fires called the SCU Lightning Complex threatened about 3,800 buildings in Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties.

Fire crews were hampered by dense, dry brush in steep country, by smoke and haze that trapped heat, and by gusty winds, Cal Fire reported.

To the south of San Francisco in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, about 22,000 people were ordered to evacuate because of a fire burning in dense wooded parkland that threatened communities, Cal Fire spokesman Jonathan Cox said.

At least 20 homes had burned, fire officials said.

California State Parks announced full or partial closures of more than two dozen parks, including Big Basin Redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where the park headquarters and other facilities were damaged. 

The park featuring magnificent towering stands of ancient coast redwoods dates to 1902 and is the state’s oldest.

Some firefighters were working 72-hour shifts instead of the usual 24 hours.

‘We’re in the unfortunate position where firefighters are going to be spending several days out on the fire line,’ Cox said. ‘It’s grueling, it’s exhausting.’

In Southern California, firefighters worked in high heat to increase containment of fires in mountains north and east of Los Angeles. 

A huge fire also burned in the remote Mojave National Preserve.

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