Deadly Northern California wildfire incinerates homes

Ellen Knickmeyer and Olga R. Rodriguez
Associated Press

Middletown, Calif. — An explosive wildfire burned largely unchecked Monday after incinerating hundreds of homes and other buildings throughout rural communities north of California’s Napa Valley, leaving at least one person dead and sending thousands fleeing down flame-lined streets.

But it’s not the only one. A second massive blaze, less than 200 miles away, destroyed 135 homes as it spread through Amador and Calaveras counties in the Sierra Nevada. That fire was 30 percent contained.

One person died in wildfire about 20 miles north of the famed Napa Valley that exploded in size within hours as it chewed through brush and trees parched from four years of drought, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Sunday. A department spokeswoman couldn’t provide details on the circumstances of the death.

The fire has destroyed 400 homes, two apartment complexes and 10 businesses since igniting Saturday, Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynn Valentine said. By Monday morning, crews had gained 5 percent containment of the 95-square-mile blaze.

Residents fled from Middletown, a town of more than 1,000 residents, dodging smoldering telephone poles, downed power lines and fallen trees as they drove through billowing smoke. Several hundred people spent Sunday night at the Napa County Fairgrounds and awoke to a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and doughnuts.

Evacuees milled around eating, picking up donated clothing and walking their dogs. Nancy O’Byrne, 57, was evacuated from her home in Middletown, but it’s still standing.

“I am very, very, very lucky. I have my house,” she said, her dog Nellie at her side.

Still, she was worried.

“This place is getting steadily fuller,” she said surveying the fairgrounds, where tents were pitched and RVs were parked everywhere.

Michael Alan Patrick, 53, had been at the fairgrounds since Saturday and lost his house in the blaze. When it broke out, he had been sitting in a park with his friends.

“It was like looking through a tunnel. You could see the flames coming,” he said. “There was this big old pine tree, it lit up and it went whoosh and it was gone.”

Whole blocks of houses burned. On the west side of town, house after house was charred to their foundations, with only blackened appliances and twisted metal garage doors still recognizable.

Valentine said most of the destruction occurred in Middletown and Hidden Valley Lake, as well as among numerous homes along a shuttered state highway. Wind gusts that reached up to 30 mph sent embers raining down on homes and made it hard for firefighters to stop the Lake County blaze from advancing, officials said.

Four firefighters who are members of a helicopter crew suffered second-degree burns during the initial attack on the fire. 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 of about 3,000 residents. It was threatening critical communications infrastructure as well as a power plant, Cal Fire said.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday declared a state of emergency to free up resources. He had already declared a state of emergency for the separate 111-square-mile wildfire about 70 miles southeast of Sacramento that has turned the grassy, tree-studded Sierra Nevada foothills an eerie white.

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 drought.

“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.

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 away from the Sierra Nevada’s Giant Sequoia trees, some of which are 3,000 years old, fire spokesman Dave Schmitt said. The fire, which was sparked by lightning on July 31, has charred 211 square miles and was 36 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. The grove is named for the towering General Grant tree that stands 268 feet tall.