MIDDLETOWN, Calif. — Two of California’s fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook several Northern California towns, killing at least one person, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses, and sending thousands of residents fleeing highways lined with buildings, guardrails and cars still in flames.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection confirmed one fatality in the wildfire north of San Francisco that raced through dry brush and exploded in size within hours. Officials also counted 400 homes, two apartment complexes and 10 businesses destroyed by the flames, department spokeswoman Lynn Valentine 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 Napa Valley. On the west side of town, house after house was burned to its foundation, 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, 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 a massive fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Valentine said most of the destruction occurred in Middletown and Hidden Valley Lake, as well as numerous homes along a shuttered state highway.
Wind gusts that reached up to 30 mph sent embers raining down on homes and made it hard for firefighters to stop the Lake County blaze from advancing, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forest Protection.
Four firefighters who are members of a helicopter crew suffered second-degree burns during the initial attack on the fire Saturday afternoon. They remained hospitalized in stable condition Sunday, Berlant said.
There is 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 Hwy. 281, including Clear Lake Riviera, a town with about 3,000 residents, Cal Fire said.
George Escalona said 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. 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 already had declared a state of emergency for a separate 102-square-mile wildfire about 70 miles southeast of Sacramento that has destroyed at least 81 homes 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 25 percent.
The fire, which broke out 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.