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Can the worst California wildfire season on record get worse? Officials say yes

As of Wednesday morning, California wildfires have burned over 2.9 million acres since the year began. That total eclipsed the previous high for a single year.

The largest wildfire complex in California state history would give firefighting crews a year-long headache. Two such blazes would seem catastrophic. But three?

"This is crazy," California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) Captain Richard Cordova told CNN.

Complicating matters is the timing of the state's massive wildfire outbreak. Not only situated within the pandemically-upended 2020, which has left firefighting crews shorthanded, but also the amount of wildfire season that remains ahead. The state's three largest blazes all ignited over the summer and have burned through August into September, but the height of wildfire season typically arrives later in the fall.

"We haven't even got into the October and November fire season, and we've broken the all-time record," Cordova said. "It concerns us because we need to get these firefighters off these lines and get them breaks from battling these wildfires."

As of Wednesday morning, California wildfires have burned over 2.9 million acres since the year began. That total eclipsed the previous high for a single year, which was previously held by the 2018 season, during which over 1.9 million acres burned.

The majority of burnt acreage this year has come from the three complex fires burning throughout the state. Known as the LNU Lightning Complex, the SCU Lightning Complex and the CZU August Lightning Complex fires, the three blazes have combined to burn over 1.1 million acres.

Each blaze was ignited by lightning strikes during the second week of August, and each has destroyed over 350,000 acres. For context, during last year's entire wildfire season, 259,823 acres burnt.

The LNU Complex, burning in the counties of Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo and Solano, and the SCU Complex, burning in the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, Santa Clara and Stanislaus, are both largely contained. However, the CZU August Complex fire, burning in Glenn, Lake, Mendocino, Tehama and Trinity counties, is currently just 24% contained, according to Inciweb.

Gusty winds earlier this week further complicated fire conditions for the August Complex, according to officials.

"Northeast winds are expected throughout the day with strong gusts up to 40 mph," officials said on Tuesday morning, adding that a red flag warning would remain in effect through 8 a.m. Wednesday with potential for rapid fire growth and widespread smoky conditions. The difficult conditions followed after extreme heat and gusty winds fanned the flames of the complex on Sunday.

That heavy smoke, along with the smoke from fires in other states such as Colorado and Oregon, has wafted across the country and shown up on satellite images over states in the Southeast, such as Alabama and Mississippi.

The largest fire currently burning outside of the Complex Fires is the Creek Fire, which has exploded to more than 160,000 acres with 0% containment in just five days since igniting on Sept. 5. Since starting near Big Creek and Huntington Lake in Fresno County, it jumped the San Joaquin River and immediately began impacting populated areas over the weekend.

The rapid growth of the fire caught many by surprise and has required hundreds of emergency evacuations, including dozens of campers who thought they were in a safe area. According to the Sacramento Bee, the fire has taken down over 4,000 structures and caused eight deaths. In the town of Big Creek, authorities estimate that half of the homes in the area have been destroyed by the blaze.

Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter told CNN that the fire has been spreading so quickly that its new acreage destruction is enough to cover New York City's Central Park every half hour.

"We have 150 million trees that died in the southern Sierra several years ago, and those are fueling the Creek Fire, which is the biggest and most concerning fire to us right now," Porter told CNN Tuesday.

Another fire, known as the Willow Fire, was ignited in Yuba County on Tuesday night, according to an official statement from Cal Fire Asst. Deputy Director Daniel Berlant. Located near the town of Dobbins, the fire has already forced evacuations of 3,000 residents in Loma Rica despite its relatively small size.

Berlant added that another fire, the Bear Fire, was greatly fueled by Tuesday's weather conditions.

"The Bear Fire, which is part of the North Complex, spread rapidly yesterday due to Red Flag conditions and moved towards multiple communities east of Oroville and forced more evacuations," he said. "While Red Flag Warnings remain in effect across much of the state, winds are expected to weaken as we go through the day [Wednesday]."

In addition to howling winds gusting greater than 50 mph at times on Wednesday, relative humidity values were expected to remain in the single digits and teens amid the bone-dry conditions, he added. Even though winds are expected to ease by Thursday, seasonal warmth and arid conditions will keep the fire danger high as fuel remains tinder-dry into the weekend.

Over the weekend, the El Dorado Fire ignited after an accident involving a pyrotechnic smoke machine was used at a gender reveal party in San Bernardino County. As of Wednesday morning, the fire had burnt over 11,000 acres and forced evacuations in Mentone and Yucaipa.

Some of the other notable fires in the state are the Apple Fire in Riverside County, the Lake Fire in Los Angeles County and the Sheep Fire in Plumas County. All three have burned at least 29,000 acres and are 95% contained.

While the record-breaking temperatures from the weekend and the notably gusty winds from earlier in the week are unlikely to return, the chances of Mother Nature providing any firefighting assistance are slim, AccuWeather meteorologists say.

In place of those gusty winds will be the return of warmer air, not the chance of precipitation that so many residents are looking for.

"As the storm system across the Rockies lifts northeastward, an expanding ridge of high pressure will once again set up across the West Coast, resulting in above-average temperatures from Seattle to San Diego by late week and through the weekend," AccuWeather Meteorologist Brandon Buckingham said.

Smoky conditions are likely to persist across the Golden State and other areas of the West as the air mass remains stagnant, he added. Continued poor air quality is likely.