Ash collects on Jennifer Daugavietis's car as fires spread toward Vacaville on Aug. 19. (Photo courtesy of Daugavietis)

Thousands of lightning strikes spark hundreds of fires across California

Jennifer Daugavietis recalls being shaken awake by her husband at 5:45 a.m. on Aug. 19 to the smell of smoke and an orange sky. 

“Sirens started going off in our neighborhood around 3 a.m., and my husband and I slept through it all,” Daugavietis said. “We woke up to a bunch of text messages from our neighbors checking in with us to see if we were awake and packing.” 

At 6 a.m., Daugavietis could see the fire cresting a hill a couple of streets over, less than a mile away from her. Daugavietis was so close there was “ash coming down like it was snow,” she said. 

As the fires burned near her Vacaville home, Daugavietis and her family decided to evacuate and stay with their relatives, the family of Country Day junior Ethan Monasa.

This wildfire season has been dubbed the “August Lightning Siege of 2020” because thousands of lightning strikes began hitting California on Aug. 15, igniting hundreds of wildfires across the state. Since that date, 26 people have died in the wildfires, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CAL FIRE. Tens of thousands of Californians have had to evacuate their homes.

Since the beginning of the year, the wildfires have burned more than 3.6 million acres and destroyed more than 6,900 structures, according to CAL FIRE.

With unprecedented temperatures reaching well over 100 degrees, energy shortages across the state and high winds fueling the fires, more than 17,400 firefighters continue to battle 25 major wildfires still burning across the state, according to CAL FIRE.

On Aug. 16, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency to “help ensure the availability of vital resources to combat fires burning across the state,” according to the governor’s website. A few days earlier, Newsom secured Fire Management Assistance Grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help improve the state’s response to fires burning across multiple counties.

Another issue that faced the firefighters were the powerlines. If the lines were active and something was blown into them, the sparks could potentially start another wildfire. 

Gov. Newsom signed an emergency proclamation allowing some energy users and utilities to use backup energy sources to relieve stress on the grid. The proclamation is to help free up energy capacity and minimize the need for energy service disruptions. 

The governor also signed Executive Order N-74-20 on Aug. 16, which restricted the amount of power generated by a facility, the amount of fuel used by a facility and imposed air quality requirements that prevented facilities from generating additional power from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. This suspension was lifted on Aug, 20.

Daugavietis and her family were not the only people who had to evacuate. 

Senior Erin Wilson’s grandmother evacuated from her home in Windsor to Pacifica. 

“It wasn’t a mandatory evacuation, but it was highly suggested and would have been mandatory had the fires gotten any worse,” Wilson said. “It was especially stressful for our family, and I can’t even imagine what it was like for her having to take all of her belongings and move.” 

Wilson’s grandmother had to stay away from home for a couple of weeks until restrictions were lifted. 

Daugavietis also had friends who had to evacuate. 

“We have lots of friends who live on the northern side of Vacaville where the hills are and where the fire was,” Daugavietis said. “The fire was particularly devastating there because the power went out so no one was receiving evacuation notices.” 

Daugavietis said the team of firefighters watching her street left to help save people who were stuck in Pleasant Valley, leaving the homes at the base of the hill undefended and without power or water. This prompted the homeowners to try to combat the fires on their own, aided by a strike team that arrived from Los Angeles.

“In the midst of all of this, I was running around the house packing, grabbing anything that was important while my husband was hosing down the roof,” Daugavietis said. 

Despite being less than a mile away from the Hennesey Fire — one of many that make up the LNU Lightning Complex Fires — Daugavietis said that she and her family were not served a mandatory evacuation notice. 

“After packing everything, we sat around until the evening deciding whether we should evacuate or not,” Daugavietis said. “Ultimately, we decided to drive to the Monasas’ house.” 

Daugavietis said that despite her husband’s parents living in California for almost 36 years, they had never experienced anything like this before.

Daugavietis and her family were away for two days before evacuation orders began to lift throughout the city of Vacaville.

Senior Pragathi Vivaik had family members get ready for an evacuation, too. 

“My cousins, aunt and uncle who live in San Jose had to prepare for an evacuation,” Vivaik said. “They had a go-backpack prepared in case they had to leave on short notice, but thankfully they didn’t have to evacuate.” 

Vivaik’s relatives planned to stay in a hotel if they had to evacuate. 

“The fires weren’t super close to them, but they were still very worried,” Vivaik said.

— By Arjin Claire

Originally published in the Sept. 22 issue of the Octagon. Updated Sept. 25.

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