SPECIAL REPORT

State of emergency in California as fires rage

A house in flames amid the Valley Fire in Siegler Springs. The Valley Fire and Butte Fire have charred large swathes of land.
A house in flames amid the Valley Fire in Siegler Springs. The Valley Fire and Butte Fire have charred large swathes of land.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LOS ANGELES • Two wildfires north of San Francisco forced thousands of people to flee their homes and prompted California Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency on Sunday, continuing a drought-fuelled fire season that could be the worst the American West has ever endured.

More than 5,500 firefighters are struggling to contain the monster blazes that have charred more than 40,500ha, destroying as many as 1,000 homes and commercial structures, and burning down houses, schools and other infrastructure, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). Four firefighters suffered second-degree burns while battling the blaze, and are being treated in hospital.

Eight major fires are currently burning, but two - the Valley Fire about 160km west of the state capital Sacramento and the Butte Fire about 161km to the east - have been particularly damaging over the last week, with little let-up in sight.

Driven by dry conditions, high winds and soaring temperatures, the Butte Fire has burned 26,425ha and was just 25 per cent contained, while the Valley Fire has grown to 20,234ha and was zero per cent contained, Cal Fire said late on Sunday.

The total surface area of the active wildfires is more than 141,672ha. In comparison, the city of Los Angeles is 130,276ha.

Dry conditions from the drought, high temperatures and gusty winds were contributing to "explosive" conditions, said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant.

A fire that started last Saturday raced through Middletown, just outside Napa Valley, reducing much of the area to ash as residents grabbed what possessions they could before escaping, witnesses said.

Student Maddie Ross, 25, fled with her grandparents and three dogs from their home after the flames leapt into their backyard.

"We were surrounded by fire," she said. "It looked like hell everywhere. It was terrifying, truly terrifying. I've never been in a situation like that. We all felt like the world was coming to an end."

About 300 people had taken refuge at an American Red Cross shelter at the Napa Valley fairgrounds on Sunday.

The fire also threatened to scorch the California wine industry at harvest time. Nearly half of the nation's wineries are in California and concentrated in Napa Valley and Sonoma County.

NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2015, with the headline 'State of emergency in California as fires rage'. Print Edition | Subscribe