Environment & Science

Valley Fire: 1 confirmed dead, hundreds of homes destroyed in Northern California

A house is engulfed in flames during the Valley Fire in Seigler Springs, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight.
A house is engulfed in flames during the Valley Fire in Seigler Springs, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight.
Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
A house is engulfed in flames during the Valley Fire in Seigler Springs, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight.
Firefighters attempt to save a burning house during the Valley Fire in Seigler Springs, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight.
Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
A house is engulfed in flames during the Valley Fire in Seigler Springs, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight.
Flames shoot out of the windows of a burning house during the Valley Fire in Seigler Springs, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday — before quadrupling in size overnight.
Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
A house is engulfed in flames during the Valley Fire in Seigler Springs, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight.
A house is engulfed in flames as firefighters attempt to put it out during the Valley Fire in Seigler Springs, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight.
Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
A house is engulfed in flames during the Valley Fire in Seigler Springs, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight.
A firefighter looks on while a house is engulfed in flames during the Valley Fire in Seigler Springs, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight.
Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
A house is engulfed in flames during the Valley Fire in Seigler Springs, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight.
Metal shows on the wheel of a burned out car parked in a driveway during the Valley Fire in Middletown, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight.
Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
A house is engulfed in flames during the Valley Fire in Seigler Springs, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight.
Melted metal flows from a burned out car abandoned on a highway during the Valley Fire in Middletown, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight.
Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
A house is engulfed in flames during the Valley Fire in Seigler Springs, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight.
A broken angel statue sits amidst rubble from a burned out house in the Valley Fire in Middletown, California on September 13, 2015. The governor of California declared a state of emergency Sunday as raging wildfires spread in the northern part of the drought-ridden US state, forcing thousands to flee the flames. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly devastated by the Valley Fire, according to local daily Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which said the fire grew from 50 acres to 10,000 over just five hours Saturday -- before quadrupling in size overnight.
Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images


More than 500 homes have been destroyed in wildfires surged in Northern California communities over the weekend. On Monday, residents and officials assessed the damage as firefighters struggled to contain the flames. 

We'll have updates throughout the day. Check back for more information and see our Fire Tracker for the latest acreage and containment figures on the fires burning throughout the state. 

VideoFire Tracker 

Updates: 

Update 6:11 p.m.: Ferocious wildfire devastates mountain town of Middletown

Earlier this summer, this small mountain town north of San Francisco opened its modest high school to residents fleeing an unusually ferocious wildfirenearby.

Now it is Middletown itself that has been evacuated — and gutted — by another blaze that shocked firefighters with its strength and speed.

The town's small cluster of shops and cafes was spared, but behind them erratic winds sent flames zigzagging down leafy streets, torching some houses and sparing others. On Monday, some residents returned to find their homes reduced to concrete foundations, chimney stacks and rubble.

One woman wept and embraced her mother as they stood near among blackened appliances and twisted metal where their family home used to be. Nearby, beige houses trimmed in white remained untouched.

"I'm in shock. I want to cry. I'm looking at my neighbors' places, and they're all gone, and I'm still here," homeowner Jim Maurer said. "We're just shaking our heads."

Over the weekend, the blaze killed an elderly, disabled area resident who was trapped in her home.

The fire and another in the Gold Rush country of the Sierra Nevada foothills, about 120 miles to the southeast, are the worst of a dozen burning in the state. Between them, they have destroyed 535 homes and hundreds of other structures and displaced 23,000 people, Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, told reporters.

Citing dry conditions from four years of drought, Ghilarducci called this summer's fires some of the most volatile he's seen in 30 years of emergency response work.

The fire that marauded through Middletown and other parts of rural Lake County, less than 100 miles north of San Francisco, was burning nearly unchecked, despite fire crews' efforts.

Since starting Saturday, it has consumed more than 95 square miles and injured four firefighters. An unknown number of residents were unaccounted for. Some might be safe; emergency personnel and law enforcement planned to go to their last known locations once the danger subsides.

While the destruction of Middletown was not complete, it was widespread.

The town's two-stoplight commercial strip was largely spared. Hardester's Market & Hardware was open Monday — Grant Hardester, one of the owners, was running the lights on a generator and taking IOUs to regulars who had not evacuated.

"Just to be able to buy something has lifted people's spirits and solved some problems," Hardester while a customer loaded two shopping carts with gasoline cans, ice, paper plates and water.

It was on the streets behind Middletown's shops and cafes where the capricious devastation unfolded.

On their rampage, flames destroyed some homes but left others standing. In many cases, firefighters made the difference. Sometimes it was simply the whims of the wind.

One two-story apartment complex of about 50 units was gutted, blackened cars with melted tires sitting near washers and driers and the skeletons of metal chairs. Yet a colorful play structure was untouched, and two lots away stood eight homes, behind a white picket fence.

"There was kind of a randomness of it because the wind was so erratic," Cal Fire Chief Dave Shew said as he stood in the apartment complex's ashes. "Some good firefighting activity saved structures; there just weren't enough people to save all of them."

About 15 miles to the northwest, the town of Cobb — population 1,700 — was badly damaged.

Adam Bailey returned home to survey the damage. He hoped to search for a relative's engagement ring, but the ash was too hot. He lost his beloved Ford pickup, the first thing he ever took out a loan on, but his family was safe — and for that he was thankful.

Elsewhere, the fire damaged or destroyed landmarks.

It devastated Harbin Hot Springs, a clothing optional retreat in the mountains between Middletown and Cobb. The area also is home to a string of geothermal power sites known as The Geysers, which use underground steam to generate electricity. Five of the 14 plants were affected, including power lines and wooden towers which held cooling water, said Brett Kerr, spokesman for Calpine Corp. which runs the facilities.

Though the flames also spread into northern Napa County, but the region's famous wine valley was not threatened. Standing in the way were peaks as high as 4,300 feet.

California has seen about 6,000 wildfires this year — about 1,500 more than this time last year.

Lake County has been particularly hard-hit. In late July, a wildfire east of Clear Lake destroyed 43 homes as it spread across more than 100 square miles. It was that fire that saw Middletown's high school serve as an evacuation shelter.

As firefighters drew close to surrounding the blaze, another fire erupted Aug. 9 several miles from the community of Lower Lake.

Jim Walsh was at the Napa County Fairgrounds on Monday morning sitting around a card table with other evacuees. It was the third time this summer he had to flee Lower lake.

This time he left with clothing, camping gear, his dog and his drones.

"My house, I hope, is standing," he said.

-- The Associated Press

Updated 1:27 p.m.: Southern California sending forces north

Waves of reinforcements to help battle the raging fires up north are being sent from various departments in Southern California, according to a number of agencies.

Fire Inspector Randall Wright of the Los Angeles County Fire Department told KPCC that 144 of its firefighters were sent to provide help. About 100 of those firefighters are manning fire engines, while the other 44 are called "overhead" personnel -- those trained to be fire behavior analysts, public information officers and overseers of basecamps, Wright said.

As part of the state's fire and rescue mutual aid system, the LA County Fire Department and others in its assigned region have been able to send a total of 500 firefighters in recent days up north to shore up fire defenses as the fires have gotten bigger, Wright said, adding that sending those resources won't hamper the department's ability to respond to anything in Southern California.

The Los Angeles Fire Department has sent a pair LAFD strike teams comprised of five fire engines and a chief officer each, the LAFD says, adding that a chief officer from the department is supervising another strike team comprised of firefighters from the Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, and Culver City Fire Departments. Even with the resources sent, LAFD says it still has the means to meet the needs of Los Angeles.

Orange County sent 70 firefighters up north over the weekend to Amador County and other fire-ravaged areas to provide backup and equipment, according to the Orange County Fire Authority. 

Update 11:38 a.m. 1 confirmed dead in Valley Fire

California officials addressed the wildfires raging through the state at a broadcast news conference Monday, saying the Valley Fire, Butte Fire and Rough are the three main fires they are focusing on, in that order. 

“We are over 1,500 fires ahead of normal for this time of year,” Cal Fire chief director Ken Pimlott said. The fires are also showing “record rates of spread,” with over 10,000 acres burned in the Valley Fire over just a few hours.

One person has been confirmed dead in the Valley Fire outside the town of Milton, Pimlott said, and an unspecified amount of people are unaccounted for.

Pimlott and Governor Jerry Brown partially attributed the exponential growth of the fires to the historic state drought as well as the average temperature rising, which they ascribed to global warming.

“We don’t see an end on fire season for months to come,” said Pimlott. “We’re in this for the long haul.”

Governor Brown has declared a state of emergency for the Valley Fire—5 percent contained—and Butte Fire—30 percent contained—and out-of-state resources including 50 fire engines have aided firefighting efforts. 

“This is the future from now on,” said Governor Jerry Brown at the conference. “It’s going to get worse just by nature of how the climate is changing.”

The Los Angeles County Fire Department tweeted out this video of the Butte Fire:

https://twitter.com/LACoFDPIO/status/643491635330961408

The Rough Fire does not have the threat to structure, life and property that others do, said Pimlott. 

Currently the main focus of California’s Office of Emergency Services is to help people who have suffered loss, said Mark Ghilarducci, director of Cal OES, at the conference. 

The state is coordinating with Red Cross to help people displaced by the fires, many of whom are in shelters. The Valley Fire has displaced about 13,000 people and the Butte Fire has displaced about 10,000 people. 

“If you want to do something, donate to Red Cross or your favorite charity working on the fires; that’s really going to be helpful in the long run,” said Ghilarducci.

Pimlott advised people to heed evacuation warnings, saying that firefighters will always prioritize rescuing people but that it deters them from fighting the fires.

Brown said in the short term, the state government’s goal in fighting fires is to build up fire personnel and equipment that is needed. Longer term, he emphasized needing to minimize the buildup of drought and global warming.

“We are going to have to make available increasing amounts of money,” said Brown, who provided additional funding last week to add six firefighting helicopters and more firefighters to the efforts. 

The cause of the fires not caused by lightning is still under investigation.

--Jessica Hamlin, KPCC 

Update 10:45 a.m.: 'It's a perfect storm for a fire to burn so quickly'

Cal Fire's Daniel Berlant told Take Two that dry conditions, gusty winds up to 30 mph and triple digit temperatures factored into the rapid growth of the fire that started Saturday.

"It's a perfect storm for a fire to burn so quickly," said Berlant. Cal Fire is expecting cooler temperatures and higher humidity this week, but Berlant said that doesn't necessarily mean that the fire is going to slow down. 

More than 11,000 firefighters are battling 12 active fires up and down the state, primarily in Northern California, said Berlant.

-KPCC staff

See more info on the Valley Fire in our Fire Tracker tool:

This story has been updated.

9:58 a.m.: Northern California fire destroys 400 homes 

Some 400 homes were among the hundreds of structures destroyed as fast-moving wildfires raged through communities in Northern California, sending residents fleeing along roads where some buildings and vehicles were still in flames.

"We had about half an hour, really, to pack and get out," Kelli Chase, a resident of Middletown, California — an area hard-hit by the fire— told KPCC's Take Two. She and her husband grabbed blankets, water and her dogs and cat to bring them to safety.

"We were fully expecting to lose everything when we saw that fire coming at us on Saturday," she said. "It was absolutely amazing how fast it moved."

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection confirmed Sunday one fatality in the wildfire north of San Francisco that raced through dry brush and exploded in size within hours, AP reported. In addition to the homes, officials also counted two apartment complexes and 10 businesses destroyed by the flames, department spokeswoman Lynn Valentine said.

However, Cal Fire's online page for the Valley Fire said the following Monday morning at 6:30 a.m.: 

There has been a report of a civilian fatality in the fire area. That report is being investigated by local law enforcement.

https://twitter.com/nbcbayarea/status/643155949843148800

 

Valentine couldn't provide details on the circumstances of the death. A call to the Lake County Sheriff's office wasn't immediately returned, AP reported.

In addition, up to 1,000 structures such as barns, sheds and other outbuildings were burned, said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant.

Hunter Couey and his family fled a friend's housewarming party in the community of Cobb when fire approached the house they were visiting. He shared his video with KPCC:

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.

Teri Molini said she first heard word of the fire Saturday afternoon and raced out of her house with the family dog, blankets and mementos. Four hours later, she could see the flames from where she sought shelter.

"We said, 'OK, this thing's a beast," Molini, 53, said.

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 famed Napa Valley. 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.

Firefighters on Sunday afternoon could be seen driving around flaming utility poles to put out spot fires. Homeowner Justin Galvin, 33, himself 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 another massive fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Valentine said most of the destruction occurred in Middletown and HiddenValley 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, Berlant said.

Four firefighters who are members of a helicopter crew suffered second-degree burns during the initial attack on the fire. They remained hospitalized in stable condition.

The fire continued to burn in all directions, triggering the evacuation of a stretch along Highway 281, including Clear Lake Riviera, a town with about 3,000 residents. It was threatening critical communications infrastructure as well as a power plant, Cal Fire said.

The 78-square-mile fire erupted Saturday afternoon and rapidly chewed through brush and trees parched from four 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 had already 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.

The fire was 25 percent contained.

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 firesis dry conditions from the drought.

"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.

Lake County saw devastation in just the last two months. In late July, a wildfire east of Clear Lake destroyed 43 homes as it spread across 109 square miles. As firefighters drew close to surrounding that blaze, another fire erupted several miles from the community of Lower Lake on Aug. 9 and more than doubled in size overnight.

Residents in the area had to evacuate from their homes two times in as many weeks.

East of Fresno, the largest wildfire in the state continued to march westward and away from the Giant Sequoia trees, fire spokesman Dave Schmitt said. The fire, which was sparked by lightning on July 31, has charred 203 square miles and was 31 percent contained Sunday, the U.S. Forest Service said.

Firefighters have maintained a precautionary line around Grant Grove, an ancient grove of Giant Sequoia trees, and set prescribed burns to keep the flames from overrunning it.

Some fire came through the area but it hasn't done much harm, fire spokesman Frank Mosbacher told the Fresno Bee.

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.

-AP's Ellen Knickmeyer and Olga R. Rodriguez with contributions by KPCC staff