LAKEPORT - A Northern California wildfire ranked as the most destructive to hit the drought-stricken US West this year has killed a woman and burned some 400 homes to the ground, fire officials said on Monday, and they expect 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.
An elderly, disabled woman who was unable to flee her home died in the fire as flames consumed the building on Saturday evening, Lake County Sheriff's spokesman Lieutenant Steve Brooks said.
Evacuated residents recounted chaotic ordeals of having to flee their homes through gauntlets of flame, and some 9,000 structures remained threatened as darkness fell on Monday evening, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
"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 evening, the blaze had blackened 62,000 acres (24,690 hectares) of tinder-dry forests, brush and grasslands, and was only about 10 percent contained, according to 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.
By Monday night more than 1,400 firefighters were battling the flames, one of 12 major wildfires across the state during an intense fire season.