Explosive wildfire sends thousands fleeing for lives in California

Last Updated Sep 13, 2015 1:31 PM EDT

COBB, Calif. - An explosive wildfire raced across several rural communities in Northern California, charring more than 60 square miles over a matter of hours, chasing thousands of people from their homes and sending four firefighters to the hospital with second-degree burns.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in Lake and Napa Counties after a wildfire charred more than 60 square miles within 12 hours, prompting thousands to flee their homes. Brown said Sunday the declaration will expedite debris removal and waive fees to people who need to replace official documents lost in the fire.

The fire erupted in Lake County, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, Saturday afternoon and rapidly chewed through brush and trees parched from several years of drought, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said. An unconfirmed number of structures were destroyed. Entire towns as well as residents along a 35-mile stretch of highway were evacuated.

The firefighters, all members of a helicopter crew, were airlifted to a hospital burn unit, where they were listed in stable condition, department spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

CBS San Francisco reports that more than 1,000 firefighters are currently battling the blaze. Many more are expected to join the effort.

"Our hearts are breaking right now," Lake County OES spokeswoman Jill Ruzicka said. She said some people in the emergency operations center had to leave to take care of loved ones.

To the east, firefighters battled a blaze about 70 miles southeast of Sacramento that exploded to more than 101 square miles in four days, turning the grassy, tree-studded Sierra Nevada foothills an eerie white.

Crews increased containment to 20 percent by early Sunday.

The fire, which broke out on Wednesday, destroyed 86 homes, 51 outbuildings and was threatening about 6,400 more.

"I lost my business - it's all burned up - my shop, my house, 28 years of living," said Joe Thomas, who lives near the community of Mountain Ranch. "I got to start all over. It's depressing."

Thomas, who runs a tractor dealership and repair business, said he and his wife grabbed papers, his work computer, photos and their four dogs. But they left a goat, five ducks, six rabbits and more than 30 chickens behind.

"I turned the pens open and turned them lose. I just couldn't gather them up," he said. "All we want to do is go home. It's miserable."

More than 3,850 firefighters were assigned to the blaze, and more we expected to join the firefight. Its cause is under investigation.

Meanwhile, new evacuation orders were issued Saturday for the largest wildfire in the state, threatening to sweep through an ancient grove of Giant Sequoia trees. The fire, sparked by lightning on July 31, has charred 201 square miles, the U.S. Forest Service said.

Firefighters cleared brush around the Grant Grove and set prescribed burns to keep the flames from overrunning it. By Saturday, the backfiring and monitoring efforts appeared to have helped protect the treasured trees, the Fresno Bee reported.

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.

California fire officials corrected the number of homes destroyed by the wildfire burning 70 miles southeast of Sacramento. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman Lynn Tolmachoff says at least 81 homes and 51 outbuildings have been destroyed by a fire burning in Amador and Calaveras counties.