CLEARLAKE, California – Thousands of firefighters battled raging wildfires Sunday in drought-parched California, where officials evacuated entire neighborhoods and closed miles of highway in the path of the inferno, which has claimed at least one life.
Some 6,000 homes were evacuated as 21 large fires burned in the bone-dry western U.S. state, which is in the throes of a historic drought.
A total of 121,000 acres (49,000 hectares) of land had burned as of Sunday evening, according to figures provided by the state.
Governor Jerry Brown’s office said that some 9,600 people were battling the fires early Sunday.
Dry lightning strikes sparked most of the fires, while the causes of others remained unknown. But authorities said they did not suspect foul play.
Thousands of lightning strikes since Thursday caused hundreds of smaller fires throughout the state, but most of the blazes were concentrated in the north, California fire chiefs said.
Tough weather challenges
“Our firefighters have been working extensively throughout the last two weeks, working hard to contain these fires. The weather has not been so kind,” CAL FIRE spokeswoman Lynnette Round told AFP. “The dry, warm windy conditions then the dry lightning hitting, it just fuels those fires.”
Brown’s office said neighboring Nevada and Colorado had also committed resources to battle the blazes.
A total of 24 homes and 26 outbuildings, which included barns and sheds, were destroyed in the community of Lower Lake, home to the picturesque Mendocino National Forest.
CAL FIRE said the Rocky Fire had grown to 46,000 acres and was only five percent contained. Its cause was still under investigation, the agency said.
Stretches of Highway 20 were closed in both directions, spelling weekend travel misery for motorists.
But late Sunday, CALFIRE had some better news on other fronts: the Lowell fire, in Nevada county, was 85 percent contained; the Wragg fire in Napa was 95 percent contained; and the Fern fire in Shasta county was 60 percent contained.
Witnesses described dramatic scenes as thick smoke from the giant fire turned day into night and flames swallowed up large tracts of woodland and forest.
Vehicles had been left to the flames, abandoned and burnt-out.
On Friday, Brown declared a state of emergency and the California National Guard was called in, underlining the scale of the threat facing the state.
Firefighter Dave Ruhl, 38, from South Dakota, was killed Thursday while fighting the Frog Fire in the Modoc National Forest outside Alturas.
“California’s severe drought and extreme weather have turned much of the state into a tinderbox,” Brown said in a statement. “Our courageous firefighters are on the front lines and we’ll do everything we can to help them.”
“Firefighter Ruhl will be remembered for his service and bravery and we extend our deepest condolences to his family, friends and colleagues with the U.S. Forest Service,” Brown said in a separate statement.
Wildfires are a fact of life in much of California, but were far worse than usual this year because of bone-dry conditions, with the state gripped by a fourth year of record drought.