(Reuters) – A couple of fast-growing wildfires in northern California expanded to more than two-thirds the size of sprawling Los Angeles as more residents were ordered to evacuate their homes and weary firefighters endured high temperatures and gusting winds.
Two blazes collectively called the Mendocino Complex burned in Mendocino, Lake and Colusa counties, about 90 miles (145 km) north of San Francisco. The River and Ranch fires had grown to cover about 229,000 acres (82,675 hectares) by Saturday night, and were considered 32 percent contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
The Mendocino Complex is now considered the sixth-largest wildfire in California history. Four of the state’s largest six fires have occurred since 2012.
This year, California wildfires have burned more land earlier in the “fire season” than usual, said Ken Pimlott, Cal Fire director, during a news conference on Saturday.
“Fire season is really just beginning. What seems like we should be in the peak of fire season, historically, is really now the kind of conditions we’re seeing really at the beginning,” said Pimlott.
California Governor Jerry Brown, who visited some of the burned areas on Saturday, said, “This is part of a trend, the new normal, that we’ve got to deal with.”
Through last week, California fires had torched about 290,000 acres (117,300 hectares), more than double the five-year average over that same period, according to Cal Fire.
The Mendocino Complex fires cover an area 71 percent of the size of Los Angeles. They have forced the evacuation of more than 20,000 residents and destroyed more than 100 structures.
More evacuations were ordered on Saturday afternoon, but no estimate of people involved was released.
The Mendocino Complex fires have swelled to become larger than the deadly Carr Fire, about 100 miles (160 km) to the northeast, which has killed at least six people and destroyed more than 1,500 structures.
Firefighters by Saturday night had managed to contain 41 percent of the Carr blaze, measured at 145,000 acres (58,680 hectares), and authorities were allowing some evacuees to return, Cal Fire said.
Both areas remained under a “red flag warning” issued by the National Weather Service for strong winds, low relative humidity and temperatures topping 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius), all conditions that can drive the growth of wildfires.
So far this year, U.S. fires have burned 5 million acres (2 million hectares), much more than the 10-year average, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Three men were given citations on Saturday for refusing to leave an area where firefighters wanted a tanker plane to make an air drop, causing the plane to be diverted, according to a post on the Lake County Sheriff Office’s Facebook page. The men when contacted by deputies were watering their marijuana plants, the posting said.
Reporting by Bernie Woodall and Makini Brice; Editing by Tom Brown, Sandra Maler and Nick Macfie