LOWER LAKE, Calif. (AP) — Blazes raging in forests and woodlands across California have taken the life of a firefighter and forced hundreds of people to flee their homes as an army of firefighters continue to battle them from the air and the ground.
Twenty-three large fires, many sparked by lightning strikes, were burning across Northern California on Saturday, said state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant. Some 8,000 firefighters were attempting to subdue them, something made incredibly difficult by several years of drought that have dried out California.
“The conditions and fire behavior we’re seeing at 10 in the morning is typically what we’d see in late afternoon in late August and September,” said Nick Schuler, a division chief with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “But because of the dry conditions, because of the drought-stricken vegetation accompanied by the steep terrain and winds, we’re seeing fire activity that’s abnormal for this time of year.”
In the Modoc National Forest, about a hundred miles south of Oregon, David Ruhl, an engine captain from South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest, was killed fighting a fast-moving blaze. He had vanished Thursday while fighting the 800-acre fire and his body wasn’t recovered until Friday.
The biggest fire was in the Lower Lake area north of San Francisco where firefighters had to wade through thick smoke and flying embers to turn loose horses, goats and other livestock in rural neighborhoods as their owners fled to safety. The fast-moving fire had burned three homes by Friday and was threatening 450 other structures. Only 5 percent contained, it had spread across 28 square miles and was growing quickly.
The fires prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency for California on Friday. As part of the order, he activated the California National Guard to help with disaster recovery.
Berlant said firefighters were hoping cooler weather might help them this weekend, but there was also the threat that lingering thunderstorms could bring more lightning strikes like those that ignited several of the fires.