Butte and Valley fires among most destructive in state history

Fire crews ran night operations and controlled burnings to contain the Butte Fire in Sheep Ranch, on Sept. 12 2015.
Fire crews ran night operations and controlled burnings to contain the Butte Fire in Sheep Ranch, on Sept. 12 2015.

State fire officials are calling the Valley and Butte fires two of the most destructive in state history, ranking 9th and 14th based on the number of homes burned.

The Valley Fire, which started Saturday in Lake County, has claimed at least 585 homes. That number is expected to grow to 1,000 or more by the time officials finish conducting a formal count. The Butte Fire, which has been burning for a week in the hills of Calaveras and Amador counties, has taken at least 233 homes.

Notably, as of Wednesday morning, only one fatality has been reported, that of an older woman in the Valley Springs area of Lake County. Fire officials say a number of people have been reported missing, however, in both fires, suggesting the death toll could climb.

The worst fire in state history –in terms of both human and homes –occurred in the Oakland and Berkeley hills in 1991, claiming 25 lives and 2,900 structures.

As of Wednesday morning, firefighters were making steady progress in containing the two blazes. Containment on the Valley fire in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties remained at 30 percent. The fire has burned 70,000 acres -- an increase of 2,800 acres blackened overnight, although much of it was caused by firefighters setting backfires to strengthen their containment lines.

In Amador and Calaveras counties, where the Butte fire broke out more than a week ago, containment had increased to 45 percent on Wednesday. The fire burn area held steady at 71,780 acres.

The firefight by crews battling both blazes was helped by cooler temperatures and higher humidity. The National Weather Service reports that rain could fall today on areas affected by the fires, especially in Lake, Sonoma and Napa counties.

“We anticipated the front that came in last night,” said Jaime Moore, a Battalion Chief with the Los Angeles Fire Department helping out on the Butte blaze. “The cold weather helped us out and we will try to take advantage of it today because we anticipate higher temperatures Thursday and later in the week.”

In Amador County, schools re-opened on Wednesday as people awoke to try to get their lives back to normal. There were no reports of injury or death from the Butte fire, but that could changes as inspection crews and cadaver dogs explore the burned buildings.

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Firefighters overnight worked to expand containment lines, Moore said. Emphasis was placed on the Wilseyville and West Point areas in the northeast and the Sheep Ranch area in the south.

“There will be a lot of cutting of containment lines,” said Moore. “Our bulldozers are still out there. Our hand crews are following up the dozers to make sure the lines are clean and moist.”

Air tankers with fire retardant and helicopters with buckets of water will also be working the perimeter of the fire.

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Many firefighters will be helping people return to their homes, checking to see if gas lines are intact and electrified power lines are not down.

In Lake County firefighters were to try to continue efforts to combat the blaze that has has burned hundreds of residences.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that investigators are looking into whether the fire started near a shed in the small community of Cobb. The house on the property is unscathed, but one side of the shed was burned as was a hillside.

Bill Lindelof: 916-321-1079, @Lindelofnews

The Valley fire

How the fire expanded after its start on September 12:

Map of Valley fire

The Butte fire

How the fire expanded after its start on September 9:

Map of Valley fire
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