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South Dakota firefighter killed, 2 dozen homes burn, thousands flee as fires ravage California

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

Twenty-one 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 8,000 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 the danger was expected to continue through the weekend.

"Mountain thunderstorms will continue through Sunday with little rain which could spark fire starts from dry lightning strikes," Berlant said in a statement.


FIREFIGHTER KILLED

Engine Capt. David Ruhl, from South Dakota, was killed battling a fast-moving blaze 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 fight the blaze, when officials lost contact with 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 24 homes and 26 outbuildings by Saturday night and more than 6,000 other homes were threatened. Mandatory evacuations were expanded to include more than 12,000 people in sweeping areas of ranches and small rural communities.

Only 5 percent contained by Saturday, the fire had charred 42 square miles, raging in hills covered in dense brush and oak trees.

Throughout the day, fingers of flame — some over 100 feet high — moved several miles north and east, state fire spokesman Ron Oatman said.


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 80 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, destroyed two homes and burned through more than 3 1/2 square miles but 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 50 percent 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 nearly 8 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 95 percent contained, and crews expected 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: Firefighters spray a hose at a fire along Morgan Valley 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)
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