Gains made in fighting California wildfires as some residents return

Firefighters search for victims in the rubble of a home burnt by the Valley Fire in Middletown, California, September 14, 2015. REUTERS/David Ryder

By Kevin Murphy and Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) - Firefighters gained ground on Saturday against two major wildfires that have destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Northern California, even as people evacuated a week ago from fire-ravaged Middletown returned home, officials said.

Fire officials say the two blazes, which have killed five people, highlight the severity in drought-stricken California of an intense wildfire season that in the coming weeks could become one of the state's fiercest on record.

The so-called Valley Fire, which is north of the wine-producing region of Napa Valley, has burned 74,500 acres (29,946 hectares), according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), or more than double the size of San Francisco. It has taken three lives and destroyed 585 homes, and is nearly 50 percent contained.

Authorities on Saturday allowed people to return home to Middletown, a community of 1,300 people evacuated a week ago that was scarred by the fire, with hundreds of homes destroyed, said Cal Fire captain Richard Cordova.

Firefighters and sheriff's officials were on hand to help, and officials said some evacuees would return to see their homes standing while others would find their properties devastated by flames from the Valley Fire.

"This is a traumatic situation for them, so we just want to make sure we're there for them to provide information and so they have a shoulder to cry on," Cordova said.

The more than 4,000 firefighters tackling the fire were taking an aggressive approach, knowing hot and dry weather in the region presented a risk of spreading flames, said Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynnette Round.

The other major fire in California is the so-called Butte Fire, burning for more than a week about 100 miles (160 km) to the east in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the state's historic Gold Rush Country. The fire, which is 65 percent contained, has killed two people, burned 70,760 acres (28,327 hectares) and destroyed 503 homes and 330 outbuildings.

Firefighters have made some progress containing the Butte Fire, and residents evacuated by that blaze have been allowed back home, but it is still being fought by a crew of more than 4,000, said Josh Rubinstein, a spokesman for Cal Fire.

"The temperature is increasing and the humidity is dropping," Rubinstein said. "The incident commander is being very cautious."

Many trees charred by the fire are in danger of falling down and are being removed as needed, Rubinstein said.

(Reporting by Kevin Murphy in Kansas City and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Editing by Franklin Paul and Diane Craft)

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