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Property toll from Northern California wildfire grows to 585 homes

Reuters , Tuesday 15 Sep 2015
Flames from the Valley Fire cover a hillside along Highway 29 in Lower Lake, California September 13, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

The toll of property losses from a deadly Northern California wildfire, the most destructive this year in the western United States, climbed on Tuesday to at least 585 homes and hundreds of other structures that have gone up in flames.

The latest tally, up from Monday's estimate of 400 homes razed, came as firefighters gained some ground against the blaze, which erupted on Saturday and raced through several communities in the hills north of Napa County's wine-producing region.

A group of evacuees whose homes were lost in the inferno were due to be escorted back to their neighborhoods for a brief chance to collect any belongings they were able to salvage from the ruins of their destroyed dwellings, fire officials said.

Authorities said conditions in fire-ravaged areas remained too unsafe, with downed power lines and other hazards, to allow people whose homes remained intact to re-occupy their houses for another couple of days.

An estimated 13,000 residents remained displaced by evacuations, while the blaze, dubbed the Valley Fire, still posed a potential threat to some 9,000 buildings in the fire zone, roughly 50 miles (80 km) west of Sacramento, the state capital.

But California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Doug Pittman said Monday night that the fire's latest advance has been into hillsides and mountains away from heavily populated areas.

As of Tuesday, the blaze had devoured 67,000 acres (3,640 hectares) of timber, brush and grass left parched by four years of drought and weeks of a extreme summer heat.

But containment of the fire, a measure of how much of its perimeter has been enclosed within buffer lines carved through vegetation by ground crews to prevent its spread, stood at 15 percent, up from 10 percent on Monday, Cal Fire said.

Temperatures have also cooled and winds have eased since the fire's peak on Saturday and early Sunday, when flames raced unchecked over 40,000 acres in just 12 hours.

The speed of the blaze caught area residents and authorities off-guard, forcing many to flee in chaotic evacuations through gauntlets of fire as surrounding houses and trees went up in flames around them.

One elderly, disabled woman who was unable to leave her home, died as flames consumed her dwelling on Saturday evening, the Lake County Sheriff's Department said on Monday.

Pittman said authorities were bracing for the prospect of finding additional victims as damage-assessment teams comb through the hard-hit communities of Middletown, Cobb, Hidden Valley Lake and the Harbin Hot Springs resort.

"Is there the possibility that we'll run into more people who didn't get out in time? Absolutely," Pittman told Reuters.

Four firefighters were hospitalized with burns they suffered in the early hours of the blaze. More than 2,300 personnel were on the fire lines as of Tuesday, Cal Fire said.

The 585 homes known to have been destroyed represents the greatest property loss from a single wildfire among the scores of conflagrations that have ravaged the drought-stricken U.S. West so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

A separate blaze raging since Wednesday in the western Sierras near the former gold mining town of Jackson has destroyed 166 residences and 116 outbuildings, with some 10,000 people displaced by evacuations there, officials said.

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