A Northern California wildfire ranked as the most destructive to hit the drought-stricken U.S. West this year has claimed one life and burned at least 400 homes to the ground, fire officials reported on Monday, saying they expected the property toll to climb.
The so-called Valley Fire erupted on Saturday and spread quickly to a cluster of small communities in the hills and valleys north of Napa County's wine-producing region, forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents.
Some recounted chaotic ordeals of having to flee their homes through gauntlets of flame engulfing the neighborhoods around them.
"That whole place was ablaze. It was like Armageddon," said Steve Johnson, a 37-year-old construction worker from Southern California who was visiting his mother in the fire-ravaged community of Hidden Valley Lake. "We were literally driving through the flames."
Johnson and his mother safely escaped and spent Sunday night at a high school gymnasium converted into an evacuation center.
By Monday morning, the blaze had devoured about 61,000 acres (24,690 hectares) of tinder-dry forests, brush and grasslands, and was only about 5 percent contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
About 40,000 acres (16,190 hectares) of the landscape were consumed in the first 12 hours of the fire at the peak of its intensity on Saturday and early Sunday, stoked by high winds.
Fire officials described the rapid initial rate of spread as nearly unprecedented, a consequence of vegetation desiccated by four years of drought and weeks of extreme summer heat.
Four firefighters were hospitalized with second-degree burns in the early hours of the blaze on Saturday.
One civilian fire fatality was confirmed on Monday by Lake County Sheriff's spokesman Lieutenant Steve Brooks. But Brooks gave no details about the circumstances or the victim's identity.
Cal Fire field battalion chief Mike Smith said the blaze was still progressing, though its intensity was diminished by a weather phenomenon known as an inversion layer that had settled over the area.
Still, efforts to combat the blaze remained hampered by thick smoke which has grounded water-dropping helicopters and airplane tankers, he said. More than 1,400 firefighters have been assigned to the blaze.
The communities of Cobb, Middletown, Hidden Valley Lake and the Harbin Hot Springs resort - located about 50 miles (80 km) west of Sacramento, the state capital - were reported to be hardest hit by the fire. Many residents were chased from their homes with little or no warning.
Reuters video footage from Middletown, a village of about 1,500 residents, showed a smoking, devastated scene of burned-out vehicles, twisted, blackened debris and charred foundations of buildings that had been reduced to ash. Roughly half of the town was leveled.
The carcass of a horse was seen lying on the shoulder of the road between Cobb and Middletown, a stretch of highway where miles of houses were laid to waste on both sides.
Cal Fire on Monday reported that at least 400 homes and hundreds of other structures were consumed. The bulk of the destruction is believed to have occurred on Saturday.
That tally ranks as the greatest loss of property from a single blaze this season in California, or among the scores of wildfires that have ravaged the drought-stricken western United States so far this summer, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
The property toll is expected to rise as damage-assessment teams reach areas of the fire zone yet to have been surveyed, but no additional communities were under immediate threat on Monday morning, Smith said.
A separate blaze raging since Wednesday in the western Sierras has destroyed 135 homes and 79 outbuildings and was threatening about 6,400 structures, with thousands of residents under evacuation orders there, too, Cal Fire reported on Monday.
Smith said many of the Valley Fire evacuees had previously been driven from their homes in August by a blaze dubbed the Jerusalem Fire, which later merged with a larger conflagration further north that destroyed about 100 structures, including 43 dwellings.