© Kyle Grillot for The New York Times
LOS ANGELES - At one smoldering end of California, Capt. Alex Arriola and hundreds of other firefighters charged up flaming hillsides in the middle of the night Monday to battle a brush fire that exploded on the tinder-dry edge of West Los Angeles.
As helicopters doused the hills to protect the priceless artworks at the nearby Getty Center and homes went up in flames, the fire crews on the ground began attacking the blaze to keep it from leaping across the street and taking out other multimillion-dollar houses.
"It was pretty much chaos," said Captain Arriola, a 34-year veteran of the Los Angeles Fire Department.
Four hundred miles to the north, an army of 4,150 firefighters and support teams raced to take advantage of a brief lull in the scorching winds to contain a fast-growing wildfire that has spread across thousands of acres. As a yellow haze curtained the barns and pumpkin farms of Sonoma County on Monday, firefighters sat through briefings before trudging back into a moonscape of charred homes and smoking roads.
The two blazes raging through dry vegetation at opposite ends of California fueled fears that the state's vicious wildfire season was rapidly pushing its limit, straining the resources of fire departments that are already spread out battling 16 fires across the state and pushing fire crews beyond the brink of exhaustion.
"It's all starting to blend together," said Joe Augino, a firefighter with the Arcadia Fire Department in Southern California who had just finished battling a wildfire in the canyons north of Los Angeles last week when his company was summoned eight hours north to help fight the Kincade fire in Sonoma County.
With no rain in the forecast, a brief break in the whipping winds on Monday offered Mr. Augino's crew and other firefighters a tiny but crucial window to try to gain control over the fast-spreading fires. But forecasters warned that the respite would not last and that wind gusts would grow to 50 or 60 miles per hour by Tuesday.
On a winding road near the front lines of the Kincade fire, where about 156,000 people remained under mandatory evacuation orders on Monday, Mr. Augino and his fellow firefighters were extinguishing spot fires with water and hand tools.
© Jim Wilson/The New York TimesFirefighters staged in Windsor, Calif., to look for hot spots on Monday. They have been working to contain the Kincade fire since it began on Wednesday.
The Kincade fire grew to more than 74,000 acres and was 15 percent contained on Monday night, according to Cal Fire. California's largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, cut power to millions of people as the fires approached over the weekend, and Gov. Gavin Newsom said that 880,000 were still without power, adding to the strain and anger as residents search for safe shelters and answers about whether their homes are endangered.
PG&E, whose equipment is suspected as the cause of the Kincade fire, also told state regulators on Monday that its lines, poles or transformers might have been involved in three other blazes.
On the ground, firefighters have coalesced from rural and urban California, from northern and southern corners of the state to battle the Kincade, one of the many wildfires that are being made increasingly vicious by climate change. Their work requires a combination of brutal force, endurance and skill.
The most effective man-made way to contain a wildfire is to box it in by building barriers or buffer zones deprived of combustible material between the fire and communities in its path. So fire crew members work in line, hacking at the hardened ground, chopping down trees, sawing off brushes and yanking out roots hidden underfoot to clear the land.
"Imagine, if you can, 16-hour days of manual labor where you're hustling all the time, and you do it often times for 14 days straight," said Doug Harwood, a firefighter in the city of Prescott, Ariz, who spent years fighting wildfires in the Western United States.
On Monday, fire crews in Northern California packed down carnitas and coffee and headed to a morning briefing before spreading out across the region, each hefting around 50 pounds of gear. Specialists called sawyers, who chop down trees, wore more, hauling Kevlar chaps and chain saws. They carried bag lunches, too.
They made their way through a blackened landscape where burned-out homes and smoking roadsides alternated with lush vineyards untouched by the disaster.
© Kyle Grillot for The New York TimesA group of inmates working as firefighters try to contain the Getty fire on Monday.
A still-green vineyard sat next to a winery, Soda Rock, that was almost completely destroyed. One rancher's lands were torched, but his cattle milled about, having somehow found safety when the blaze came through.
Chris Harvey, a firefighter with the Sacramento Fire Department, said the capricious path of destruction had to do with the nature of the Kincade fire: The high winds picked up embers and dropped them all around, and they caught in places with ready fuel.
With the winds calmer on Monday, firefighters could finally spread out to extinguish smoking trees and other remnants of the fast-moving fire or clear away potential fuel.
They returned from their shifts dirty, tired and hungry. They holed up in tents or in trailers packed with bunks.
Some struggled to remember when they had gotten a full night's sleep. A team from Sacramento had been about to get a break on Sunday morning when they were diverted to defend homes in Windsor, a town tucked into the woods. They lost out on sleep but saved 20 or 30 houses that might have otherwise burned, said David Baldwin, a battalion chief with the Sacramento Fire Department.
"You try to catch some catnaps," said Chris Klemm, a firefighter and paramedic with the Arcadia Fire Department who was gulping down an energy drink as he and his colleagues stood next to their engines on the side of a rural road in Sonoma County. He was not sure how much time they would get off after their next shift ended.
In Los Angeles, the Getty fire that broke out around 1:30 a.m. in the hills around the Brentwood neighborhood spread across 600 acres and forced thousands of people to flee - including the Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James. The Los Angeles County Fire Department said that nobody had been hurt, but that eight homes had been destroyed and 10,000 others were threatened. The fire was still burning uncontained on Monday afternoon. The fire also jammed parts of the 405 freeway, one the nation's busiest highways.
The Los Angeles Fire Department dispatched firefighters to protect the Getty Center, where an exhibition of Édouard Manet's paintings recently opened.
Peter Sanders, a spokesman for the department, said the Getty Center was surrounded by firefighters as air tankers dropped red fire retardant on canyons to the west to create a barrier. "There's no longer an imminent threat to the Getty Center," he said.
"Some of that brush hasn't burned in a long time," Mr. Sanders said. The Skirball fire, in 2017, burned nearby, but on the opposite side of the 405 freeway - the east - as the Getty fire, which was burning to the west.
In a parking lot across from the Getty Center a "tact team" crew of about a dozen firefighters that had been fighting the blaze since 2 a.m. took a break to down some sandwiches, chips and sodas. Hot spots continued to smolder on the charred hillside as firefighting helicopters chirred overhead.
Nancy Cochran, 84, one of the thousands who evacuated, said she was woken up in her home on a cul-de-sac of Mandeville Canyon by an alert on her phone. As she fled for an evacuation center, she said, she could see flames on the horizon.
It was her sixth fire since she moved into her home in 1973, but this one was more difficult because her husband had died six months earlier. As Ms. Cochran sat at the Westwood Recreation Center, she thought of a friend who had lost everything in a previous blaze. She believed that her home would survive this time, but she said she was ready to accept whatever awaited her when she returned.
"This part is adrenaline," she said. "You go into denial. And then afterwards, when all the excitement goes away, that's the hardest part."
Tim Arango reported from Los Angeles; Thomas Fuller from Windsor, Calif.; Jose A. Del Real from Napa, Calif.; and Jack Healy from Denver. Reporting was contributed by Julie Turkewitz from Healdsburg, Calif.; Fernanda Santos from Phoenix; Arit John and Ethan Varian from Los Angeles; Ivan Penn from Burbank, Calif.; and Adeel Hassan from New York.