More than 12,000 residents have been evacuated as the destructive Rocky fire exploded to 60,000 acres across three counties and consumed 50 structures, including 24 homes.
The wildfire, 12% contained Monday morning, was threatening 6,301 structures in Colusa, Lake and Yolo counties as it continued to advance despite firefighting efforts.
Fire activity grew dramatically in an area with “little to no fire history,” according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.More than 2,900 firefighters were aggressively working to stop the fire, but flames have been difficult to reach due to the steep, rugged area with limited access, Cal Fire said.
The Rocky fire is burning east of Clear Lake in a remote area roughly between California 29 and 16, according to Cal Fire, and is the biggest of numerous fires burning in drought-plagued Northern California.
Fueled by erratic winds and bone-dry woodlands, the fire has destroyed 24 residences and 26 outbuildings, Cal Fire said.
"Dry thunderstorms" — lightning and wind with very little rain — are the main cause of roughly two dozen large blazes that have led to one firefighter's death and prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency.
Two state highways are closed, the 20 and the 16, which are serving as fire breaks where crews have started backfires.
Evacuation centers were set up at two schools.
"There are pretty widespread evacuations," said Brad Alexander, chief spokesman for the governor's emergency services office. "The big issue is this is an area that hasn't had burning in several decades.
"They've got chaparral that is over 6 feet tall," Alexander said. "When you have vegetation that big and dense in an area like that it is going to cause flames to race up and down canyon walls and hillsides.
"It can move as fast as the wind can carry it," faster sometimes than a person can run, Alexander said. "So when you have perfect conditions for an explosive fire, it is critical folks are listening."
The advancing fire forced Elizabeth Ormsbee, 14, to leave her home in Spring Valley three days ago. She could see flames on the opposing ridge. "I was crying, but a firefighter talked to me and he told me it would be OK," she said.
Elizabeth has been staying with her godmother, Cindy Burton, in Clearlake since then. Ash and smoke have periodically descended on the small town, depending on the direction of the wind.
"We're all praying it gets put out soon," said Burton, who had helped organize a group to make signs to post at the county fairgrounds thanking firefighters for their efforts.
In addition to sending evacuation requests and orders over the radio, television and social networks, deputies from three counties traversed the back roads Saturday night and Sunday, going door to door.
Campers at a number of parks in Yolo County were roused in the middle of the night with a warning to leave, said a Cal Fire spokesman.
The storms are expected to continue through the weekend, forcing nearly 9,000 firefighters engaged in the battle to keep an eye on the sky as they confront the burning ground around them.
"We've had lightning throughout the state," said Lynne Tomachoff, a spokeswoman for Cal Fire, "but Southern California has seen a little bit more precipitation, which helps."
In addition to the large blazes, thousands of lightning strikes on bone-dry landscape have sparked hundreds of smaller fires, Cal Fire officials say.
David Ruhl, 38, a U.S. Forest Service firefighter from South Dakota, was driving alone on Thursday, scouting ways to attack a fire burning in Modoc County, just south of the Oregon border. He became trapped and died after erratic winds whipped the blaze and it suddenly expanded, a Forest Service spokesman said.
The married father of two "left his home state to help protect one of California's majestic forests," Brown said. "We extend our deepest condolences to his family."
Though most of the fires have been sparked by lightning, weather has not been the only cause. A woman was arrested Thursday on suspicion of causing a 200-acre fire near Groveland, just outside Yosemite National Park. Her bail was set at $100,000.
A bit farther south, near Bass Lake, authorities say a boy playing with a lighter started a fire that led to the evacuation of roughly 200 homes. "We see this all too often," Tomachoff said. "Curious kids want to see what will happen, but they don't understand the consequences."