Two fast-burning wildfires overtook several Northern California towns, killing at least one person and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and sending thousands of residents fleeing highways lined with buildings, guardrails and cars still in flames.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection confirmed one fatality in the wildfire north of San Francisco that raced through dry brush and exploded in size within hours. Officials also counted 400 homes, two apartment complexes and 10 businesses destroyed by the flames, department spokeswoman Lynn Valentine said.
Valentine couldn’t provide details on the circumstances of the death. A call to the Lake County Sheriff’s office has not been returned.
In addition, up to 1,000 structures such as barns, sheds and other outbuildings were burned, said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant.
The devastation comes after a separate wildfire to the southeast destroyed at least 81 homes.
Residents fled from Middletown, dodging smoldering telephone poles, downed power lines and fallen trees as they drove through billowing smoke.
Whole blocks of houses were burned in parts of the town of more than 1,000 residents that lies about 20 miles north of the famed Napa Valley. On the west side of town, house after house was burned to their foundations, with only charred appliances and twisted metal garage doors still recognizable.
Wind gusts that reached up to 30 miles per hour sent embers raining down on homes and made it hard for firefighters to stop the Lake County blaze from advancing, Berlant said.
Four firefighters who are members of a helicopter crew suffered second-degree burns during the initial attack on the fire Saturday afternoon. They remained hospitalized in stable condition.
The fire continued to burn in all directions, triggering the evacuation of a stretch along Highway 281, including Clear Lake Riviera, a town with about 3,000 residents. It was threatening critical communications infrastructure as well as a power plant, Cal Fire said.
The 78-square-mile fire erupted Saturday afternoon and rapidly chewed through brush and trees parched from several years of drought. Entire towns as well as residents along a 35-mile stretch of State Route 29 were evacuated. Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday declared a state of emergency to free up resources.
Brown had already declared a state of emergency for a separate 102-square-mile wildfire about 70 miles southeast of Sacramento that has destroyed at least 81 homes and turned the grassy, tree-studded Sierra Nevada foothills an eerie white.
Crews increased containment on that blaze to 25 percent.
The fire, which broke out on Wednesday, was threatening about 6,400 more buildings.
Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said this summer’s fires are the most volatile he has seen in 30 years of emergency response work. The main cause behind the fast-spreading fires is dry conditions from the four-year drought, he said.
“The bushes, the trees have absolutely no moisture in them, and the humidities are so low that we are seeing these ‘fire starts’ just erupt into conflagrations,” Ghilarducci said, according to the Sacramento Bee.
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