Crippling Western fires burn homes, thousands of acres

LAKEPORT, Calif. -- Fire-fighting veterans say they have never seen a fire move so quickly.

In just five hours this past weekend, 20,000 acres burned through brush baked hard by four years of drought.

And thousands have evacuated. The "rocky fire" is the largest of more than two-dozen wildfires burning Monday night in the West.

The wildfire burning northwest of Sacramento exploded over the weekend, scorching 94 square miles, an area larger than the city of Seattle.

Dozens of air tankers and National Guard helicopters are giving support for 3,000 firefighters below.

On the ground they're lighting backfires to burn out dry brush ahead of approaching flames that threaten thousands of homes.

But huge columns of smoke -- as high as 35,000 feet -- are making this fire-fight especially challenging, says Battalion Chief Jeff Ohs.

Dozens of homes burn in California wildfires

"Once that energy reaches that level, the column collapses," he said. "That's a big, big problem for us because then we don't have one direction that's the fire is going, it's going in several directions."

CBS News saw first hand how quickly the fire can change when fast-moving flames blocked an exit road. CBS News had to wait it out with firefighters for two hours.

But residents who evacuated didn't have that luxury.

Today, a father and son, who asked CBS News to not use their names, returned to the charred remains of their Lake County home. Nothing was salvageable.

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California man returns to his home to find it has been destroyed by a wildfire. CBS News

"When I left we didn't take anything except for a tooth brush and our animals," said the father. "You got to be strong. I am young. I can start over."

Record heat and the extreme drought have made conditions especially brutal. The state has dealt with a thousand more fires this year than they do in an average year.