Pilot killed, dozens of homes reduced to ash as US state reports hundreds of fires, including 23 major fires or groups of fires that officials blame on "extraordinary weather" and "lightning strikes."

Flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fires consume a home in Vacaville, California, August 19, 2020.
Flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fires consume a home in Vacaville, California, August 19, 2020. (AP)

A firefighting helicopter pilot has been killed and dozens of homes have been burned in California after lightning sparked hundreds of fast-moving blazes, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee their dwellings. 

California suffered nearly 11,000 lightning strikes in 72 hours in the worst such storm in over a decade that ignited 367 fires, nearly two dozen of them major blazes, authorities said on Wednesday.

Multiple fires raced through northern California's drought-hit wine country, shutting Interstate 80 at Fairfield about 56 km southwest of Sacramento as flames leapt across the highway, trapping motorists caught in a hectic evacuation.

In central California, a helicopter was on a water-dropping mission in Fresno County about 258 km south of San Francisco when the aircraft crashed, killing the pilot, a private contractor, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).

To the north, wind-driven fires covering over 18,615 hectares near Fairfield and Vacaville raged through hills and mountains during the night, burning at least 50 homes and other structures, according to CalFire.

People trapped in blazes

Wearing a singed nightgown, Diane Bustos said her husband abandoned their car as it burned and then blew up on the west side of Vacaville. 

She lost both her shoes as she and her family ran for their lives. 

There were social media reports of people trapped in the fire, dubbed the LNU Lightning Complex, but local authorities did not report any casualties.

"I made it, God saved me," Bustos told local television station KPIX.

A Reuters reporter saw dozens of burned out homesteads and houses in the Vacaville-Fairfield area, dead livestock among torched properties or wandering around.

"We are experiencing fires the like of which we haven't seen in many, many years," California Governor Gavin Newsom told a news conference, adding that he had requested 375 fire engines from out of state.

Historic numbers

The last time California experienced similar dry lightning storms was in 2008, said CalFire spokesman Scott Maclean.

Fanned by "red-flag" high winds, the fires are racing through vegetation parched by a record-breaking heat wave.

The blazes follow devastating fires across northern California in 2017 that killed 44, wiped out numerous wineries and destroyed nearly 9,000 homes and other structures.

A separate group of fires called the SCU Lightning Complex, centred about 20 miles east of Palo Alto, more than doubled in size overnight and is now burning over 34,398 hectares. 

The CZU August Lightning Complex, meanwhile, has grown to over 4,046 hectares.  and forced evacuations around 13 miles south of Palo Alto.

To the east, drought stricken Colorado faced its second-largest wildfire in history on Wednesday.

The Pine Gulch blaze has produced its own weather system with thunder and lightning as it burned across 125,100 acres. It covers an area larger than the city of Denver, in remote mountain terrain north of Grand Junction, authorities said.

Poor air quality 

The fires have also affected air quality in the northern part of the state, where falling ash forced some residents to remain indoors.

"The air quality will be very poor for the foreseeable future given the rapid spread of fires and stagnant air mass," the National Weather Service in the Bay Area tweeted.

Wildfires have become more frequent and bigger in California in recent years, in part driven by climate change.

READ MORE: High risk of more wildfires in California as weather heats up

Source: TRTWorld and agencies