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South Dakota firefighter killed, hundreds flee, homes destroyed as wildfires ravage California

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LOWER LAKE, California — Blazes raging in forests and woodlands across California have taken the life of a firefighter and forced hundreds of people to flee their homes as crews continue to battle the flames from the air and the ground.

Twenty-three large fires, many sparked by lightning strikes, were burning across Northern California on Saturday, said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Some 9,000 firefighters were working to subdue them, something made incredibly difficult by several years of drought that have dried out California.

"The conditions and fire behavior we're seeing at 10 in the morning is typically what we'd see in late afternoon in late August and September," said Nick Schuler, a division chief with Cal Fire. "But because of the dry conditions, because of the drought-stricken vegetation accompanied by the steep terrain and winds, we're seeing fire activity that's abnormal for this time of year."

The fires prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency for California and activate the California National Guard to help with disaster recovery.

Berlant said firefighters were hoping cooler weather might help them this weekend, but there was also the threat that lingering thunderstorms could bring more lightning strikes like those that ignited several of the fires.


FIRFIGHTER KILLED

Engine Capt. David Ruhl, from South Dakota, was killed battling a fast-moving blazee that broke out Thursday in the Modoc National Forest about 100 miles south of Oregon.

Ruhl was in a vehicle Thursday, looking for ways to attack the blaze, when the fire suddenly grew and trapped him, fire information officer Ken Sandusky said. His body was recovered Friday.

Ruhl, part of a Black Hills National Forest firefighting team, had been helping California firefighters since June.

The fire had grown to about 3 acres by Saturday, and it was 5 percent contained.


BURNING HILLS

The biggest fire was in the Lower Lake area north of San Francisco, where firefighters had to wade through thick smoke and flying embers to turn loose horses, goats and other livestock as their owners fled to safety.

The fast-moving fire had burned three homes by Friday and was threatening 450 other structures. Only 5 percent contained by Saturday, it had charred 35 square miles south of Clear Lake, a popular summer recreation spot.

At least 650 residents have been evacuated from their homes as the blaze raged in hills covered in dense brush and oak trees and dotted with ranch homes.

"We saw it behind our house. We saw the smoke pouring over. So we just started collecting stuff and we left, to find out later that everyone was evacuated out here," said resident Julie Flannery.

When they returned Friday, they found their two horses and one mule were gone. They hoped firefighters turned them loose so they could make their way to safety.

"The rest of this is just material stuff," she said. "The animals and the family is the most important."


FOOTHILLS FIRES

A woman was arrested in connection with a small fire near Groveland, a stop-off point for travelers headed to Yosemite National Park.

The 200-acre fire, about 20 miles from the park's entrance, was 45 percent contained Saturday, when all evacuations were lifted and residents were allowed to return to their homes.

Lisa Ann Vilmur was arrested Thursday night on allegations of recklessly causing a fire. She was jailed on $100,000 bail, and it was not known if she has an attorney who could comment.

In a separate foothills blaze northeast of Sacramento, evacuation orders were lifted for residents of 50 homes. The fire, which ignited Saturday, burned through more than 3 1/2 square miles and was almost fully contained.


BASS LAKE BLAZE

A wildfire that caused the evacuation of 200 homes in the central California community of Cascadel Woods was partially contained.

Authorities say a boy acknowledged starting the fire near Bass Lake by playing with a lighter to burn pine needles. The fire, which has been burning for several days, has grown to more than 6 square miles.


NAPA FIRE LINES HOLDING

Crews battling a fire east of Napa Valley held their ground Saturday, more than a week after the blaze started about 45 miles east of Napa's wine county.

More than 12 square miles in Solano County have been charred, but the fire was 92 percent contained, and crews expectd to have it fully corralled by Monday.

PHOTO: An air tanker drops fire retardant near Lower Lake, Calif., Friday, July 31, 2015. A series of wildfires were intensified by dry vegetation, triple-digit temperatures and gusting winds. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
An air tanker drops fire retardant near Lower Lake, Calif., Friday, July 31, 2015. A series of wildfires were intensified by dry vegetation, triple-digit temperatures and gusting winds. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

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Video:
PHOTO: A series of wildfires blackened the golden hills of California on Friday, egged on by bone-dry vegetation, triple-digit temperatures and gusting winds. (July 31)
A series of wildfires blackened the golden hills of California on Friday, egged on by bone-dry vegetation, triple-digit temperatures and gusting winds. (July 31)
Photo Gallery:
PHOTO: Burned signs are shown on a road near Lower Lake, Calif., Friday, July 31, 2015. A series of wildfires were intensified by dry vegetation, triple-digit temperatures and gusting winds. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Click to view (22 Photos)
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