LAKEPORT, Calif. (Reuters) - A second fatality was confirmed on Wednesday in the massive California wildfires that have also destroyed more than 800 homes and forced the evacuation of 20,000 people, but crews appeared to turn a corner against the blazes as rain fell over the region.
Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the death had been reported by the Calaveras County in California’s so-called Gold Country.
No further details were immediately released on the death, the second so far in the pair of fires that have collectively scorched more than 140,000 acres in mountain areas to the east and west of Sacramento, the state capital, a region left tinder dry by four years of punishing drought and weeks of extreme summer heat.
An elderly woman was later discovered to have perished in her home and four firefighters were hospitalized with burns suffered in the early hours of the blaze.
The so-called Valley and Butte fires are the two most destructive blazes in an intense wildfire season in California that is already shaping up as one of the fiercest on record with much of September and October - historically the worst two months of the year - still ahead.
The more ferocious of the two latest blazes, the so-called Valley Fire, erupted on Saturday and raced through several communities north of Napa County’s wine-producing region, destroying 585 homes and hundreds of other structures.
Thousands of residents were forced to flee, many at a moment’s notice as neighborhoods went up in flames. An elderly woman was later discovered to have perished in her home and four firefighters were hospitalized with burns suffered in the early hours of the blaze.
Lake County Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Brooks said four people have been reported missing in the fire, and authorities have not ruled out the possibility that additional victims would be found as damage assessment teams comb through the wreckage.
But a cooling trend, higher moisture levels and diminished winds have helped firefighters gain ground against the blaze in recent days, according to officials from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
Sporadic drizzle fell Wednesday over the county seat of Lakeport, site of the fire command post.
Containment of the fire - a measure of how much of its perimeter has been enclosed within buffer lines carved through vegetation by ground crews - had grown to 30 percent by Wednesday morning, Cal Fire said.
“We’ve been on the offensive for the last few days now, but we’re going to take advantage of what Mother Nature has given us and work harder to get more containment line in,” Cal Fire spokesman Rich Cordova said.
Authorities on Wednesday lifted evacuation orders for a cluster of communities on the outskirts of the fire zone.
But conditions in fire-ravaged areas remained unsafe, with downed power lines and other hazards, and authorities said it would be days more before residents whose homes remained intact would be permitted to reoccupy their houses.
More than 13,000 residents were displaced at the height of the fire threat.
Meanwhile, a week-old blaze dubbed the Butte Fire, which has gutted 233 homes and 175 outbuildings about 100 miles away in the western Sierras, was listed as 45 percent contained on Wednesday afternoon. Some of the estimated 10,000 evacuees from that fire were beginning to return home as well.
The Valley Fire has caused the greatest property loss from a single wildfire among the scores of conflagrations that have raged across the drought-stricken U.S. West so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. The Butte fire ranks as the second most destructive in California this season.
With well over 650,000 acres blackened by more than 7,000 wildfires across California already this year, 2015 could surpass 2008 for the most blazes and most landscape burned in a single year, Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.
He said the Valley and Butte fires already rank among the top 20 most destructive wildfires in state history. They still pale in comparison to some of the very worst, such as a 1991 firestorm in Oakland that leveled 3,200 buildings or a 2003 blaze in San Diego that destroyed 2,800 structures.
Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Andrew Hay, Tom Brown and Ken Wills