MIDDLETOWN, Calif. (AP) – Two of California’s fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook several Northern California towns, destroying more than 180 homes and sending residents fleeing Sunday on highways lined with buildings, guardrails and cars still in flames.
At least 100 homes were destroyed by a wildfire north of San Francisco in Lake County that raced through dry brush and exploded in size within hours, officials said. 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 fire in Amador County.
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 were injured Saturday while battling the flames. They remained hospitalized in stable condition Sunday, Berlant said.
There’s no official tally of the destruction yet because firefighters are focused on new evacuation orders and on residents’ safety, he 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.
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.
The 78-square-mile fire erupted Saturday afternoon and rapidly chewed through brush and trees parched from several years of drought, Cal Fire said. 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 the separate 101-square-mile wildfire about 70 miles southeast of Sacramento that has destroyed at least 81 homes and 51 outbuildings and turned the grassy, tree-studded Sierra Nevada foothills an eerie white.
Fire officials had earlier counted 86 homes destroyed, but issued the new figure Sunday morning. Crews increased containment on that blaze to 20 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.
In Fresno County, the largest of 13 wildfires in the state continued to march westward as firefighters increased the areas of their backfires to try to stop the weekslong advancement, fire spokesman Dave Schmitt said. The fire, 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. The grove 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.
Rodriguez reported from San Francisco. Associated Press photographer Eric Risberg in Middletown contributed to this story.
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