At least one person has died and over 400 homes and businesses have been destroyed by a fast-moving wildfire that overtook several Northern California towns, officials said late Sunday.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman Lynn Valentine said officials had confirmed one fatality, though she had no immediate information on the deceased. She added that the the fire has destroyed 400 homes, two apartment complexes and 10 businesses. Most of the destruction occurred in the communities of Middletown and Hidden Valley Lake, as well as homes along a shuttered highway.
The so-called Valley Fire broke out Saturday and has already burned 78 square miles in Lake County, north of San Francisco, after rapidly chewing through brush and trees parched from several years of drought. It is one of two massive blazes ravaging the state amid extreme drought conditions. The massive Rough Fire, east of Fresno, had destroyed 203 square miles of forest land as of late Sunday.
California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Lake and Napa counties due to the wildfires, state officials said. He also called up the California National Guard and requested funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It was not immediately clear whether Brown asked President Obama for a federal disaster declaration, which would give the state access to more resources. Brown had already declared a state of emergency forevada foothills an eerie white.
In Lake County, 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.
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, California Department of Forest Protection spokesman Daniel 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 Sunday, Berlant said.
People were ordered Sunday to evacuate a stretch along Highway 281, including Clear Lake Riviera, a town with about 3,000 residents, Cal Fire said. Napa County officials said that some people who have had to flee the area are taking shelter at the county’s fairgrounds. County officials also warned residents that people are scamming survivors through social media by asking evacuees for their addresses. The scammers say they are part of a news crew covering the fire and will check on the evacuee’s home, county officials said.
George Escalona told The Associated Press that in some areas of town “there is nothing but burned houses, burned cars,” adding that all he had left were the clothes he was wearing.
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 Rough Fire 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.