At least 1 dead in "unprecedented" California wildfire

Last Updated Sep 13, 2015 11:28 PM EDT

MIDDLETOWN, Calif. -- A voracious wildfire has overtaken several Northern California towns, killing at least one person and destroying more than 400 homes and businesses, according to authorities.

A California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman confrimed the death Sunday evening as firefighters continue to battle the out-of-control blaze north of San Francisco in Lake County.

Lynn Valentine said officials had no immediate information on the deceased.

She said the fire had destroyed 400 homes, two apartment complexes and 10 businesses. Most of the destruction occurred in the communities of Middletown and Hidden Valley Lake, as well as homes along a shuttered highway.

The fire broke out Saturday afternoon and exploded in size within hours. It has burned 78 square miles.

A firefighter sprays water on a backfire while battling the Butte fire near San Andreas, California September 12, 2015.
REUTERS/Noah Berger

Mark Ghilarducci, California's emergency chief, says this summer's fires are the most volatile he has seen in 30 years of emergency response work. He says the main cause behind the fast-spreading fires is dry conditions from the four-year drought.

Ghilarducci says fire and emergency services operations are "stretched" and that California has asked for help from Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Colorado and Washington state. He says Nevada has already sent fire crews and aircraft.

California Department of Forest Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant says 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. Four firefighters were injured Saturday while battling the flames.

"This has been a tragic reminder to us of the dangers this drought is posing," Berlant said.

In a tweet Sunday, the Lake County Office of Emergency Services, quoting Cal Fire's Chief of Operations Todd Derum, said that the fire was creating its own weather and not moving with the winds.

The Office of Emergency Services called the fire's behavior "unprecedented."

People were ordered Sunday to evacuate Clear Lake Riviera, a town with about 3,000 residents, and other areas near the blaze, Cal Fire said.

Senator Mike McGuire said, overall, the fire has spread over 50,000 acres and caused more than 10,000 people to be evacuated. He said a shelter located at Napa County Fairgrounds had a total of about 350 evacuees.

A decision was made to close Lake County's Public Schools on Monday.

Residents streamed from Middletown Sunday morning and had to dodge smoldering telephone poles, downed power lines and fallen trees as they drove through billowing smoke.

Whole blocks of houses burned in parts of Middletown, where firefighters were driving around guardrails and flaming utility poles to put out spot fires Sunday afternoon.

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.

Homeowner Justin Galvin, 33, himself a firefighter, stood alone at his home, 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.

George Escalona told The Associated Press that parts of his town, including his home, have burned to the ground.

In some areas of town "there is nothing but burned houses, burned cars," Escalona said, adding that he has nothing left but the clothes he was wearing.

CBS Sacramento reports Steve Mortimer's two story home - which he built himself 13 years ago in Mokelumne Hill - was reduced to nothing but a pile of rubble.

He left just in time.

"I was in these trees and the embers were hitting me and I was going to take a picture, but I didn't even have time to get my phone out of my pocket to take a picture," Mortimer told the station. "It was that hot and that fast."

The four firefighters who were injured while battling the blaze were all members of a helicopter crew. They were airlifted to a hospital burn unit, where they were being treated for second-degree burns and were listed in stable condition, officials said. Cal Fire Public Information Officer Scott McLean identified the injured firefighters as Fire Captain Pat Ward, Firefighter Niko Matteoli, Firefighter Richard Reiff and Firefighter Logan Pridmore. McClean said all are in good spirits.


Flames engulf a tree as the Butte Fire rages near San Andreas, California September 12, 2015.

Noah Berger/Reuters

The fire, which broke out on Wednesday, was threatening about 6,400 more buildings.

"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."