Fire rips through a home in Vacaville, in northern California – GETTY IMAGES

A pilot battling a fire in central California died after his helicopter crashed on Wednesday morning.

Crews have been battling wildfires in the state and thousands of people were under orders to evacuate as hundreds of fires blazed across California amid a blistering heatwave now in its second week.

Cal Fire said in a statement that the helicopter crashed while fighting a wildfire in western Fresno County while on a water dropping mission. The pilot was the only one on board.

As fires raged across the state, smoke over San Francisco and the Bay Area, with atmospheric testing revealing that Northern California’s air quality is currently the worst in the world. Authorities have told residents to stay inside and shut their windows.

Governor Gavin Newsom has blamed “this extraordinary weather we’re experiencing and all of these lightning strikes” for 367 known fires, including 23 major fires or groups of fires. He said the state has recorded nearly 11,000 lightning strikes in 72 hours.

Police and firefighters went door-to-door before dawn on Wednesday in a frantic scramble to warn residents to evacuate as fire encroached on Vacaville, a city of about 100,000 between San Francisco and Sacramento. At least 50 structures were destroyed, including some homes, and 50 damaged.

A car ablaze at the LNU Complex fire near Vacaville – GETTY IMAGES

“This is an incredibly emotional and stressful time for most of us who’ve endured a number of wildfires over the last few years,” said Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick.

Ash and smoke filled the air in San Francisco, which is surrounded by wildfires burning in multiple counties to the north, east and south. The LNU Lightning fire is made up of several fires burning in five counties north of San Francisco, including in Vacaville, and had consumed 72 square miles as of Wednesday morning.

John Gardiner, 60, stayed up all night after receiving an alert from a neighbour of oncoming fire around just before midnight. His house and neighbours’ homes were still safe, but he worried that could change as crews anticipate hot winds Wednesday afternoon.

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“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.”

Victoria Gregorich, 54, said her family loaded up the car and left their Vacaville home after deputies rang the gate around 12.30 am to tell them to evacuate. The fire destroyed her greenhouse, but the house was spared.

Her neighbours were not so lucky.

“It’s devastating,” she said. “I just thank God we have our home.”

Firefighters are suffering from exhaustion, senior officers said – AP

Elvis Castaneda, 28, and his father Silverio spent the night moving ranching equipment to a safer location, removing vegetation and making firebreaks with their tractor around the properties of friends.

“We couldn’t see the flames but the sky was pretty orange, and we knew it was coming our way,” Elvis Castaneda said.

He said he drove home at 3am and started packing legal documents, photos, passports and his firearms after hearing that his girlfriend’s family, who live in a ranch two miles away, were told to evacuate and move all their farm animals to safety.

He got the order to leave after dawn on Wednesday.

In the East San Francisco Bay, a cluster of 20 separate lightning-sparked fires called the SCU Lightning complex was threatening about 1,400 structures in rugged terrain with dense brush. The fires have torched 133 square miles.

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.

The smoke spread as far as the centre of San Francisco – AP

About 22 fires are part of the complex and most had been burning in relatively remote, dense brush until strong winds overnight Tuesday pushed them into more populated areas, merging some of the fires together.

Resources are strapped, he said, given the number of fires burning in California.

“We’re in the unfortunate position where firefighters are going to be spending several days out on the fire line,” he said. “It’s gruelling, it’s exhausting.”

Christopher Godley, Sonoma County’s emergency management director, also conceded that resources are thin.

“It’s difficult to second-guess what the fire commanders are doing with their aircraft. But it’s not like last year when we saw just a huge wealth of resources flowing into the county,” he said. “It is what it is.”

The cluster of wine country fires threaten an area that only last year grappled with another massive blaze that forced 200,000 to flee – a task made more complicated this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

South of Carmel, nearly 50 miles of scenic Highway 1 along the coast was closed due to fires.

In Southern California, an eight-day-old blaze grew to more than 40 square miles near Lake Hughes in northern Los Angeles County mountains.

Chewing through century-old fir, oak and pine, the fire continued to be a threat to 4,570 structures after destroying a dozen. Dangerously hot weather and rough terrain challenged firefighters’ efforts to increase containment, currently estimated at 38 per cent.

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