California wildfires kills one person, destroy 400 homes

Massive California wildfires kills one person, destroy 1,000 structures including 400 homes

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

A wildfire burns across a hillside in Middletown, Calif., on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015

Two of California's fastest-burning wildfires in decades 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.

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.

Firefighters on Sunday afternoon could be seen driving around flaming utility poles to put out spot fires. Homeowner Justin Galvin, 33, himself a firefighter, stood alone at his house, poking its shin-high, smoking ruins with a piece of scrap metal.

"This is my home. Or it was," said Galvin, who spent all night fighting another massive fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Valentine said most of the destruction occurred in Middletown and Hidden Valley Lake, as well as numerous homes along a shuttered state highway.

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.

Lake County saw devastation in just the last two months. In late July, a wildfire east of Clear Lake destroyed 43 homes as it spread across 109 square miles. As firefighters drew close to surrounding that blaze, another fire erupted several miles from the community of Lower Lake on Aug. 9 and more than doubled in size overnight.

Residents in the area had to evacuate from their homes two times in as many weeks.

East of Fresno, the largest wildfire in the state continued to march westward and away from the Giant Sequoia trees, fire spokesman Dave Schmitt said. The fire, which was sparked by lightning on July 31, has charred 203 square miles and was 31 percent contained Sunday, the U.S. Forest Service said.

Firefighters have maintained a precautionary line around Grant Grove, an ancient grove of Giant Sequoia trees, and set prescribed burns to keep the flames from overrunning it.

Some fire came through the area but it hasn't done much harm, fire spokesman Frank Mosbacher told the Fresno Bee.

The grove is named for the towering General Grant tree that stands 268 feet tall. There are dozens of Sequoia groves in the Sierra Nevada, and some trees are 3,000 years old.