Thousands Flee as California Wildfires Destroy Homes
By Sam Stanton, Tony Bizjak, Ed Fletcher and Richard Chang
Two major wildland fires continued to burn out of control Sunday in Northern California despite the efforts of more than 5,000 firefighters to halt the progress of the blazes, which had burned hundreds of homes and scorched more than 164 square miles in Amador, Calaveras and Lake counties.
Thousands of residents fled for their lives as the flames approached, and California fire officials said the speed and destructive nature of the infernos were the worst they had seen in decades.
"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," said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services. "The fires are spreading faster than I have seen in my 30 years."
Both fires had caused massive damage by late Sunday, and fire officials warned that the tally of lost homes and property could increase as damage assessment teams make their way into burned areas.
The Valley fire that began in Lake County on Saturday afternoon ballooned into a 50,000-acre monster that destroyed 400 homes and 10 commercial buildings in the areas of Boggs Mountain, Hidden Valley Lake and Middletown.
The blaze, with zero containment, continued to be fanned by winds Sunday.
"This has been a very destructive fire," Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said. "It has destroyed countless homes and buildings."
The Butte fire, which began Wednesday afternoon, torched 65,000 acres in Amador and Calaveras counties and burned 135 homes and 79 outbuildings by Sunday night, Cal Fire said. That fire was reported at 25 percent containment.
Those two fires -- as well as the Rough fire east of Fresno, which has consumed nearly 130,000 acres and is the state's largest -- have grown exponentially, largely due to the state's four-year drought. The fires all have been more explosive and have grown faster than the state's computer modeling had forecast.
"We've seen that over and over this year," Berlant said. "We do a lot of science, looking at vegetation, topography and weather, but what is making this year so much different is the drought. That is why we have seen mass destruction."
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency Sunday for Lake and Napa counties, an order that follows an earlier one he made for the Butte fire.
Earlier, the state Office of Emergency Services announced that it had obtained a grant overnight from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for Lake and Napa counties that allows agencies fighting the blaze to recover costs from the fire.
Wind shifts sent the Valley fire in a northerly direction Sunday, toward Highway 29 near Soda Bay on the southern shore of Clear Lake, and prompted officials to call for evacuations there.
Lake County sheriff's deputies were knocking on doors around noon in the Clear Lake Riviera neighborhood, near Kelseyville, telling people to evacuate. Skies were thick with smoke and ashes.
"We are totally covered in smoke; we can't see anything," said Mike Ullrich, owner of Soda Bay Inn, on the Clear Lake south shore. "We're ready to go."
Berlant said Valley fire evacuees number in the thousands.
Numerous homes and an apartment complex burned to the ground in Middletown, and visibility remained extremely limited, with heavy smoke still covering the area.
Still, much of the town of 1,300 residents was spared, including the high school and Middletown Bible Church, but only a few residents had returned by Sunday, after the fire had burned through.
Middletown resident Gustavo Maldonado, 28, was clearing out his home Sunday morning and hitching his Jet Ski to his pickup truck to keep it from being targeted by looters. He said most of the damage to his house was in the backyard and well.
His parents' home a few doors down, however, was destroyed, and they and his daughter fled Saturday while he was at work in St. Helena.
"I feel lucky that my daughter and parents were saved," Maldonado said as he packed up sheets and blankets for what he expects will be a long stay elsewhere.
"We can't live here anymore," he said. "There's going to be no electricity and water for the next weeks.
"I'm going to go stay with family members, get a hotel and call my insurance," he said.
To the east of the Valley fire, in the Sierra foothills, thousands more residents fled the Butte fire and sought shelter in churches, schools and Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort.
Video: Butte fire's flames continue their advance
The Butte fire burning in Calaveras and Amador counties continued to advance on Sunday, sweeping through grass, brush and trees as firefighters struggled to established containment. Homes and other structures have been destroyed, displacing increasing num
"We've turned the hotel into an evacuation center," said Rich Hoffman, the rancheria's chief executive officer.
In addition to using the hotel, cots were brought into the conference space. The RV park was filled, and some people shared sleeping space in the parking lot with animals they had brought with them, Hoffman said.
"We are just fortunate to have this facility," he said.
Although the casino was still open, much of its resources had been diverted for the new mission, Hoffman said.
At the Calaveras County Fairgrounds in Angels Camp, where other evacuees sought shelter, homeowners waited for word on the fate of their houses and neighborhoods.
"You remain optimistic until you have firm feedback," said Sandy Tyler, who lives near the community of Mountain Ranch. "We took a lot of care to create defensible space."
Meanwhile, Doug Quintall said he felt confident that his home, also near Mountain Ranch, would survive the blaze.
However, he feared he had lost much of the musical equipment stored at a studio.
"I got my most important guitar and the computer with its recordings," he said.
Mike Surrette and Jerry Hanks have lived a mile apart from each other for years but just met after parking their trailers next to each other after fleeing the fire.
"A lot of bonding being done," Surrette said, as he held a large cup of coffee.
Firefighters working the Butte fire were hampered by heavy smoke Saturday that kept air tankers and helicopters from flying, but clearing conditions Sunday gave officials confidence that air attacks could resume.
About 100 firefighters from the Sacramento region have been deployed to the three major fires, including strike teams sent Saturday night to assist in the Valley fire.
Sacramento Fire Department spokesman Roberto Padilla said strike teams of firefighters from Sacramento, Folsom, Metro Fire, West Sacramento and Cosumnes have been deployed to the Valley fire, as well as to the Butte and Rough fires.
The latest deployment came Saturday night with units dispatched to Lake County, "lights and sirens all the way out there at 9:30," Padilla said.
"These are extreme conditions, and for us locally these are literally our neighbors," Padilla said.
Law enforcement officers from regional departments also have been dispatched to provide traffic support and protect evacuated neighborhoods. One suspected looting incident in San Andreas on Saturday night resulted in a suspect being detained.
Four firefighters suffered burns during the early stages of the Valley fire Saturday afternoon.
Cal Fire Capt. Pat Ward and firefighters Logan Pridmore, Richard Reiff and Niko Matteoli were airlifted to UC Davis Medical Center with burns. Two were hospitalized at the medical center and two were admitted to UC Davis' Firefighters Burn Institute Regional Burn Center. Their conditions were all stable.
The Lake County-based firefighting group had been dropped into the fire zone near the community of Cobb by helicopter to build containment lines when they were injured, officials said.
"All of them are in great spirits," said Cal Fire director Ken Pimlott. "To be honest with you, they just want to get back out and into the fight. But there are probably going to be weeks of recovery."
Pimlott said the firefighters, who suffered burns to their hands and faces, are receiving treatments to prevent infection and will undergo painful cleaning procedures. He said all are expected to recover from their wounds, which include second-degree burns, but may require physical therapy to regain full mobility.
A Cal Fire accident review team will assess the incident in which they were injured.
The Rough fire in the mountains east of Fresno continues to be the largest active fire in the state with 130,000 acres burned.
That fire has swept through areas that contain several ancient and iconic sequoias, including the General Grant Tree, the second-largest in the world, and the Boole Tree, the sixth-largest.
"They are all fine," fire spokesman Jim Schwarber said Sunday morning. "There have been a lot of efforts preparing those areas, removing fuels around them. We had sprinklers set up, so there wouldn't be serious threat."
The Chicago Stump, part of a large sequoia that was cut down more than a century ago, was wrapped in foil for protection, Schwarber said.
The fire, centered in Kings Canyon east of Fresno, was reported 31 percent contained Sunday morning. Nearly 3,000 firefighters are involved.
The lightning-caused fire has been burning since July 31, and Schwarber said the fire -- like the Butte and Valley fires -- has been spreading faster than computer modeling forecasts projected.
"The country is bone dry, and we've had triple-digit hot weather," Schwarber said. "We have dry, dead, super-flammable fuel."
One firefighter has been injured. An estimated 3,500 people have been evacuated from their homes, but only two buildings were reported destroyed.
The Sacramento Bee's Peter Hecht contributed to this story.
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