By Noah Berger
MIDDLETOWN, Calif. (Reuters) - A rapidly spreading wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes and other buildings as it roared through the northern California village of Middletown and several nearby communities, chasing thousands of residents from their homes, fire officials said on Sunday.
The so-called Valley Fire, now ranking as the most destructive among scores of blazes that have raged across the drought-stricken Western United States this summer, came amid what California fire officials described as "unheard of fire behavior" this season.
Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in areas ravaged by the blaze, and officials expanded mandatory evacuations as shifting winds sent flames and ash toward a number of towns in the hills north of Napa Valley wine country.
The Valley Fire has consumed more than 50,000 acres since erupting Saturday afternoon in rural Lake County, California, about 50 miles west of Sacramento, the state capital, fire officials said on Sunday.
Thousands of evacuees from Middletown, Cobb, Hidden Valley Lake and the Harbin Hot Springs resort gathered in shelters, restaurants and friends' houses in nearby Kelseyville and Calistoga waiting to hear about their homes, horses and dogs.
Middletown and the town of Cobb, just to the north, were reported to be hardest hit by the flames, with large swaths of Middletown left in ruins, according to officials, eyewitnesses and local media reports.
Video footage from Middletown showed a smoking, devastated landscape of blackened, burned-out vehicles and the charred foundations of buildings that had been reduced to ash.
"While crews have not had a chance to do a full damage assessment ... we know 100s of structures have been destroyed," Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said in a Twitter post.
"This has been a very destructive fire. It has destroyed countless homes and other buildings," he said in a video news briefing released a short time later. "Evacuations are widespread in the area."
He said a combination of prolonged drought and a heat wave baking the region in triple-digit temperatures last week had left vegetation tinder dry and highly combustible, setting the stage for a conflagration that thwarted the best efforts of firefighters to contain it.
"Every time they made progress, the fire would burn right past them," he said, adding that stiff winds were carrying hot embers beyond the leading edge of the flames, sparking additional blazes that quickly enlarged the fire zone.
Four firefighters were hospitalized with second-degree burns after they were dropped off by helicopter to battle the fire, authorities said.
Laura Streblow, 27, an evacuee who fled the nearby town of Hidden Valley with her boyfriend on Saturday night and has been tracking developments on social media and through friends, told Reuters she had heard that "Middletown is basically gone."
Recounting her own evacuation ordeal, Streblow said, "I saw flames all around. Because we weren't moving in traffic, you sat for 30, 40 minutes, flames on both sides of me. The wind was insane. I have never been so scared."
Mark Donpineo, 54, a project manager, said he and two friends were trapped by the fire for four hours Saturday evening at a golf course in the Hidden Valley Lake gated community, taking cover in a culvert.
"We got some towels, wetted down them down, and basically saw the fire coming. You could hear explosions of propane tanks, the ridge was totally on fire, trees were blowing up," he said.
The fire eventually moved on, and Donpineo, a resident of Harbin Hot Springs, drove through falling ash to Kelseyville.
(Additional reporting by Karen Brooks in Austin, Texas, and Letitia Stein in Tampa, Florida; Writing by Fiona Ortiz in Chicago; Editing by William Hardy, Bill Trott and Andrea Ricci)