SACRAMENTO - Fires fed by raging winds raced across a wide swath of Northern California on Tuesday, destroying dozens of homes, threatening hundreds of others and leaving a firefighter severely burned.
The fires were concentrated in areas north and south of the state capital, while separate blazes burned near the coast in Monterey and Sonoma counties.
"The winds are just howling, 40 mph," California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant said while watching a 1,000-acre wildfire near Sacramento race out of control. "That's what makes it so challenging."
South of Sacramento, several fires that ignited along Interstate 5 in Stockton blew out of control. The fires damaged or destroyed 30 homes - including nine houses, 20 condominiums and one triplex, said Connie Cochran, a spokeswoman for the Central Valley city about 50 miles south of the state capital. Another 20-25 homes were scorched or suffered other damage, such as burned fences. The suburban neighborhood is made up mostly of three-bedroom homes built in the 1970s, some with their original wood-shake roofs, which are highly prone to fire.
Two firefighters were treated for minor injuries in the Stockton blazes, Cochran said. Ambulances treated some residents for smoke inhalation, but no one had been taken to a hospital, she said.
In Palermo, a town of about 5,000 residents about 60 miles north of Sacramento, a 1,200-acre wildfire had destroyed 21 homes and about 30 other structures by Tuesday evening, said Joshpae White, a spokesman for the state fire agency.
The Butte County community south of Oroville was evacuated temporarily while at least 350 firefighters fought to protect homes.
In another blaze just south of Sacramento, a fire captain was hospitalized with severe burns after a grass fire unexpectedly changed direction and became more intense.
Sacramento Metro Fire Department Capt. Jeff Lynch said the captain was heavily sedated in the University of California, Davis Regional Burn Center in Sacramento with third-degree burns to his hands and second-degree burns to his arms.
Second-degree burns cause blistering or peeling of the skin, while third-degree burns include skin charring.
The captain and two members of his engine crew were protecting a mobile home from the 1,000-acre grass fire in a rural area south of Sacramento. The captain was caught when the wind and flames suddenly shifted direction. The two crew members were able to get inside the cab and escaped injury, Lynch said.
"We have extreme fire conditions driven by high wind and dry humidity," Lynch said.
The mobile home and several outbuildings burned, but the fire's progress had been stopped by late afternoon.
Grass, brush and trees are in matchstick condition across California after the driest March, April and May on record.
In addition, a steady north wind was gusting through California's Central Valley, said Jason Clapp, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento. He said the relative humidity was 15 percent and could drop to single digits.
Firefighters backed by helicopters and air tankers hoped to make progress once the wind died and temperatures cooled Tuesday evening. But winds were expected to flare again Wednesday and Thursday.
Other fires burning in Northern California on Tuesday included:
- A blaze east of Orland in Glenn County, which is northwest of Sacramento, that destroyed three homes and a business. Highway 32 was closed temporarily.
- A 100-acre fire near El Dorado Hills in the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento.
- A 200-acre fire near Cloverdale in Sonoma County.
- A 200-acre fire near Highway 132 in Tuolumne County.
- A fire that began Sunday in the Los Padres National Forest in Monterey County and has grown to 1,200 acres. It was burning in steep, rocky terrain of the Ventana Wilderness about 21 miles west of King City. It was only about 8 percent contained Tuesday afternoon, but officials said the fire has not been growing substantially. About 15 summer cabins in the Santa Lucia Tract remain evacuated as a precaution.
The unusually severe and early fire season began with a wildfire last month that scorched more than 4,200 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It destroyed at least three dozen homes between Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties, about 15 miles south of San Jose.