Firefighters in northern California were battling a fast-moving wildfire early Sunday that had razed buildings, forced thousands to flee, and hospitalized four firefighters with second-degree burns.
The so-called Valley Fire in Lake County, northwest of Sacramento, erupted early Saturday afternoon and rapidly chewed through brush and trees parched from several years of drought, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
The fire spread quickly, growing from 50 acres to 400 acres just before 4 p.m. (7 p.m. ET) Saturday, to 40,000 acres at 1:30 a.m. (4:30am ET) Sunday.
The four firefighters, who were members of a helicopter crew, were in a stable condition at UC Davis Medical Center, Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.
Entire towns as well as residents along a 35-mile stretch of highway were ordered to evacuate. Cal Fire said hundreds of firefighters were battling to contain the blaze, which had destroyed an unknown number of buildings.
The fire had burned past the town of Middletown and was heading in a south-eastern direction towards Aetna Springs, Cal Fire spokesman David Shew told NBC News.
Shew said the wildfire picked up speed early Sunday morning as wind blew in from a westerly direction. He said the fire will rank as one of the worst he’s seen in terms of devastation over his 28 years with Cal Fire.
Meanwhile, firefighters battled a blaze about 70 miles southeast of Sacramento that exploded to more than 101 square miles in four days, turning the grassy, tree-studded Sierra Nevada foothills an eerie white.
Cal Fire said the Butte Fire in the Calaveras and Amador counties, which had been spurred on by “unprecedented fire conditions” and steep terrain that had helped the blaze spread, was at 65,000 acres on Saturday night.
The blaze was sparked Wednesday and had destroyed 86 homes, 51 outbuildings and was threatening about 6,400 more, Cal Fire said. Mandatory evacuation orders were in place for several communities.
“I lost my business — it’s all burned up — my shop, my house, 28 years of living,” Joe Thomas, who lives near the community of Mountain Ranch, told The Associated Press. “I got to start all over. It’s depressing.”
Thomas, who runs a tractor dealership and repair business, said he and his wife grabbed papers, his work computer, photos and their four dogs. But they left a goat, five ducks, six rabbits and more than 30 chickens behind.
“I turned the pens open and turned them lose. I just couldn’t gather them up,” he said. “All we want to do is go home. It’s miserable.”
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency on Friday, helping free up funding and resources to fire the fire, which was 15 percent contained on Saturday evening. More than 3,850 firefighters are assigned to the blaze, Cal Fire said. More were expected to join the firefight, according to The Associated Press.
Thirteen fires in total are burning in California, prompting the National Weather Service to issue air quality alerts for a large swath of the middle of the state as thick smoke clouded the region.