MIDDLETOWN (AP) — Two of California’s fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook several Northern California towns, destroying more than 180 homes and sending residents fleeing Sunday on highways lined with buildings, guardrails and cars still in flames.
The 101-square-mile Butte wildfire about 70 miles southeast of Sacramento in Calaveras County has destroyed at least 81 homes and 51 outbuildings 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 have also increased containment on that blaze to 20 percent.
The fire, which broke out on Wednesday was threatening about 6,400 more buildings.
At least 100 homes were destroyed by a wildfire in Northern California’s Lake County that raced through dry brush and exploded in size within hours, officials said Sunday. The devastation comes after a separate wildfire to the southeast destroyed at least 81 homes.
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 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.
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, California Department of Forest Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant said.
Four firefighters who are members of a helicopter crew were injured Saturday while battling the flames. They remained hospitalized in stable condition Sunday, Berlant said.
There’s 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 Highway 281, including Clear Lake Riviera, a town with about 3,000 residents, Cal Fire said.
George Escalona told The Associated Press that parts of Middletown, including his home, have burned to the ground. In some areas of town “there is nothing but burned houses, burned cars,” he said, adding that he had nothing left but the clothes he was wearing.
The 60-square-mile fire erupted Saturday afternoon and rapidly chewed through brush and trees parched from several years of drought, Cal Fire said. Entire towns as well as residents along a 35-mile stretch of highway were evacuated. Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday declared a state of emergency to free up resources.
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.
“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,” Ghilarducci said, according to the Sacramento Bee.
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.