Firefighters Struggle to Contain Raging California Wildfires – Wall Street Journal

MIDDLETOWN, Calif.—Firefighters struggled Monday to contain two explosive wildfires in Northern California that have claimed at least one life, scorched 130,000 acres, burned down over 500 homes and turned several communities into smoldering ruins.

The more destructive of the two blazes, known as the Valley Fire, had grown to 61,000 acres in semirural Lake County, north of the Napa County wine region, and was only 5%-contained.

Many residents and veteran firefighters in this area 100 miles west of Sacramento, accustomed to wildfire danger, said they had never seen one so fast or so fierce.

Fletcher Thornton, a 76-year-old rancher, said he was watering his lawn Saturday when he saw smoke, then “flames come up over the hill.” He fled with his wife, three horses, three dogs and two cats. He left behind as many as 100 cattle, which he assumed were now injured or dead.

“We never thought for a second it would be that fast,” said Mr. Thornton, who spent Sunday night at a shelter in Napa County with about 800 other evacuees. “It was roaring down like a freight train.”

More than 20,000 residents in all remained under evacuation orders. Thousands woke up Monday in shelters and hotels, not knowing if their homes were still standing. Officials and residents began to get an accounting of the devastation, even as the Valley Fire raged largely unchecked.

The second blaze, known as the Butte Fire, has burned 71,000 acres in Amador and Calaveras counties southeast of Sacramento and has destroyed 135 homes.

Authorities in Lake County identified the fires’ only known fatality as an “elderly disabled” woman who couldn’t escape her home. Authorities responded to a call to help her evacuate, but they couldn’t reach her before flames engulfed her home. The woman hasn’t been identified by name until her family is notified.

A house is engulfed in flames during the Valley fire in Seigler Springs, Calif., on Sunday.

For months, fire officials have warned about the potential of California’s drought and climbing temperatures to fuel fast-moving blazes. The fires near Sacramento represented those fears come to life: wildfires burning out of control into populated areas.

“We have record rates of spread,” said Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, noting the fires had grown by more than 10,000 acres in just a few hours. “Everything we’ve been talking about…the conditions for potentially explosive fires, is really just all coming true.” The Valley Fire “is burning in all directions,” officials said.

In some neighborhoods, firefighters went “house to house as the flaming front was coming through” and pulled residents out of homes, Mr. Pimlott said. Burned-out cars abandoned on highways showed that “folks were waiting until the last minute, got scared, and left,” he said.

Among the landmarks destroyed by the Valley Fire was Harbin Hot Springs, a spa-like spiritual retreat that draws visitors from around the world. It is one of Lake County’s largest employers, with about 175 workers.

“I don’t know how Lake County is going to survive this,” said Diane Tulley, 64, a water masseuse at the retreat. She fled to rescue her cats at her home nearby as the fire descended on the area, but was only able to round up three of her eight cats.

A dead horse lies on the side of a road while firefighters continue to battle the Valley fire in Middletown, Calif., on Sunday.

“I stayed as long as I dared,” Ms. Tulley said.

Even people with homes and businesses spared worried how the county would be able to rebuild. The community of Middletown, with a population of 1,300, was especially hard-hit. Officials estimated 400 homes there were destroyed. On Monday, it resembled a ghost town, the streets empty except for media and emergency workers. An apartment complex lay leveled, gutted vehicles sitting in a burned-out carport.

Tanya Striedieck’s Star Gardens nursery survived, but she said the fire probably affected many of her customers. “This is a community where parents lost their homes and their children lost their homes,” said Ms. Striedieck, 58. “It’s a major catastrophe for this little town.”

Officials in the region tried Monday to account for a number of missing people, unsure if they were just away from their homes or had refused to heed evacuation orders and were trapped by flames.

California has fought 6,000 wildfires this year, well above the normal rate of about 4,000 by this time. A study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change analyzed blue oak tree rings to show that the 2015 Sierra Nevada snowpack is the lowest in 500 years—unusually dry conditions that have made the West a tinderbox.

Gov. Jerry Brown linked the fire conditions to climate change, and noted his push for a law to increase California’s measures to combat it. A bill to reduce emissions supported by Mr. Brown passed the legislature last week, but not before its most controversial aspect, a plan to reduce petroleum fuels use by 50%, was stripped out following a lobbying campaign by oil-industry opponents.

California Gov. Jerry Brown studies a map showing the Valley Fire while getting an update on the state's fire situation Monday.

He said the state would be able to fund the firefighting effort, which includes National Guard troops as well as equipment and crews from other states, without tapping its rainy-day fund. More than 5,800 firefighters were now battling the fires.

“Fires are not political. Climate change is not political. It’s real…We really are in a battle with nature and nature is more powerful than we are,” Mr. Brown said from the state’s Emergency Operations Center.

As the Valley Fire reached the Geysers plant, an electric complex spread across Lake and Sonoma counties where flames had already damaged buildings, officials urged people to obey evacuation orders.

Rob and Ann Gross, among the estimated 800 displaced residents camping on the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga, had already gotten out. They fled when they could see flames nearing their double-wide trailer in Middletown and hear propane tanks exploding in homes nearby. “It was like a war zone, like nothing I had ever heard,” said Mr. Gross, 62, a local ham radio operator.

The couple jumped in their car with their two dogs, and sped towards Highway 29 to flee over a mountain to Calistoga, but found the route blocked with traffic.

“People were honking,” said Ms. Gross, 58, a college professor. They briefly thought about jumping in a nearby pond for safety, but decided to stay on the path when they saw traffic moving again.

On Monday, though, they didn’t know whether their home had been spared. Authorities were still keeping them away from the scene.

Write to Jim Carlton at and Tamara Audi at


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