Wildfires wreak havoc across northern California, killing one

Firefighters search for victims in the rubble of a home burnt by the Valley Fire in Middletown, California, September 14, 2015.
PHOTO: Reuters

CALISTOGA, United States - Winds whipped new life Monday into northern California wildfires that have killed a woman, hospitalized firefighters, and reduced hundreds of homes to smoldering ruins.

"It breaks my heart to look out and see what you folks are going through," Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin told hundreds of evacuees given refuge on fair grounds in the wine country town of Calistoga.

"It is a terrible tragedy." State disaster officials said two fast-moving infernos - dubbed the Valley and Butte fires - had destroyed more than 100,000 acres (more than 50,000 hectares), forcing thousands to flee.

Officials said the victim, who was not identified, died in the Cobb area of Lake County that has been especially hard hit.

The woman had a disability and emergency workers slammed with calls for help did not get to her home before it was engulfed in flames.

This marks the first civilian fatality in the wildfires that have devastated the western United States in recent months.

Fire 'still spreading'

While the Valley fire is located about 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of the state capital Sacramento, the Butte fire is about 100 miles to the east.

Cool, moist weather that moved into the area on Monday, bringing with it chances for rain, brought welcome relief for crews who had been working on rough terrain in searing, dry heat days earlier.

However, the weather change also brought with it winds that powered swift moving walls of flames.

"The fire is definitely more active today than it was yesterday," Incident Commander Barry Biermann told AFP. "The fire is still spreading in different directions." The hamlet of Middletown in Lake County was reduced to rubble by the flames that left an apocalyptic scene.

An AFP reporter who visited the town saw smoldering homes, melted vehicles and downed power lines.

"There is metal dripping off the cars because of the heat," he said.

About a mile outside of the town lay a dead horse by the side of the road.

Many residents in the region said the air was so thick with smoke, it was difficult to breathe.

"It's hazy with smoke and smells like ashes," one resident, Rosendo Vallejo, tweeted.

Watching for looters

Worries have started to spread that looters may be taking advantage of the fact that people left valuables behind while racing to safety.

"We stopped some people coming out of the burn area with property taken," Sheriff Martin said.

"There are people out there who will take advantage of disasters like this." Evacuees were told it could be a while before they were allowed to go home, even if only to check on livestock or pets and pick up much-needed prescription medicines.

'Battle with nature'

Citing the widespread destruction, Governor Jerry Brown on Sunday declared a state of emergency for Lake and Napa counties - wine-producing regions north of San Francisco.

"We're really in a battle with nature, and nature is more powerful than we are," Brown told reporters on Monday.

The recent fires have been fueled by tinder-dry conditions across the western United States, which has been starved for rain for the past several years.

The prolonged dry spell has been exacerbated by record high temperatures, which many environmentalists blame on global warming.

Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire), said the Valley fire has so far consumed 61,000 acres (24,685 hectares), and was only five percent contained, with 1,200 firefighters mobilized to tackle it.

The 4,400 firefighters combatting the Butte fire have had more success. That blaze has consumed some 70,000 acres.

Together, the twin blazes have destroyed an area nine times the size of Manhattan.

Four firefighters who were hospitalized with burns were expected to "walk out of the hospital," Biermann said.

More than 11,000 firefighters are battling a dozen large fires across California.

Firefighters from across the country, as well as Australia and New Zealand, have lent a helping hand.

National Guard troops have also been called in.

Three fires are scorching the earth in the neighboring state of Oregon and 10 are ablaze further north in Washington state.

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