At least 66 homes were destroyed, with another 17 damaged, and thousands of residents evacuated the Butte County town of Paradise, about 90 miles north of Sacramento, to escape the blaze that contributed to at least one death -- an elderly woman who suffered a heart attack while evacuating.
That blaze was just one of a series vexing firefighters across Northern California on Friday. A wildfire in Monterey County continued to chew through the Los Padres National Forest, and flames in the Santa Cruz County kept hundreds of residents away from their mountain homes.
Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the Butte County fire was the most dangerous because it was moving toward Paradise on Friday, prompting officials to call for another round of precautionary evacuations for 4,500 people there. About 9,000 resident evacuated the area a day earlier, but officials had reopened roads to some of those homes Friday.
About 35 percent of the fire was contained by Saturday morning, and it had charred almost 23,000 acres. Five firefighters had sustained minor injuries.
Shifting, persistent winds continued to stoke the fire late Friday, said Cal Fire spokesman Joshpae White.
"It's kind of a mess. You've got this wind moving back and forth. The winds are really squirrely. They're changing direction," White said.
White, one of the firefighters injured, said he was escorting reporters through the fire area in a pickup truck when the flames quickly began closing in. After safely evacuating the reporters, he helped nearby firefighters escape and was forced to drive through a wall of fire.
"It looked like a million blowtorches across the road," White said. "We were taking significant heat. The heat was so intense, the windshield began cracking."
White and another firefighter were treated for minor burns. In recent days, hot temperatures, steady winds and tinder-dry vegetation have fueled the destructive blazes around the state. In Santa Cruz County, firefighters got a handle on a wildfire that has scorched 600 acres and burned 10 homes in the Bonny Doon community. An evacuation order was still in place, however, for some areas where firefighters were still trying to rein in a blaze that was 75 percent contained.
Officials did not immediately have an estimate of how many people were being let back into their homes.
More than 1,500 residents had been told to evacuate their homes in the heavily forested hills about 10 miles northwest of Santa Cruz since the fire broke out Wednesday afternoon. The fire flared just two weeks after another blaze two miles away scorched 4,200 acres and destroyed at least three dozen homes in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency in Butte County and Santa Cruz County to free up additional firefighting resources.
Farther south, another wildfire had charred nearly 25,000 acres in the Los Padres National Forest in Monterey County. It was nearly 40 percent contained Friday.
The causes of all the blazes remain under investigation.