By Curtis Skinner
MIDDLETOWN, Calif. (Reuters) - Property losses from a deadly Northern California wildfire, the most destructive this year in the western United States, climbed on Tuesday to at least 585 homes and hundreds of other structures that have gone up in flames.
The latest tally, up from Monday's estimate of 400 homes razed, came as firefighters gained some ground against the blaze, which erupted on Saturday and raced through several communities in the hills north of Napa County's wine-producing region.
Thousands of residents were forced to flee, many without warning as neighborhoods burned around them. One elderly shut-in was later discovered to have perished in her home, and authorities have not ruled out finding additional victims.
Ana Malachowski, 33, was back in the devastated village of Middletown on Tuesday, picking through ruins of her brother's home as he tried to direct her by cell phone to spots in the rubble where jewelry and other items might be salvaged.
"I'm just numb," she said, recounting how she and neighbors tried in vain to battle flames with garden hoses on Saturday before giving up to join in the evacuation.
Her own house survived, she said, but added, "This whole town is a big family. You can't say, 'This family lost their home and this one didn't.'"
Lake County sheriff's deputies began escorting some evacuees back to their properties to briefly tend to pets or livestock that were left behind.
But authorities said conditions in fire-ravaged areas remained unsafe, with downed power lines and other hazards. Residents whose homes remained intact would not be able to reoccupy their houses for at least another couple of days.
An estimated 13,000 residents remained displaced by evacuations, while the blaze, dubbed the Valley Fire, still posed a potential threat to some 9,000 buildings in the fire zone, roughly 50 miles (80 km) west of Sacramento, the state capital.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Doug Pittman said Monday night that the fire's latest advance was mostly toward hillsides and mountains away from heavily populated areas. But the fire was reported especially active on Tuesday near the small mountain town of Loch Lomond and the Aetna Springs resort.
By Tuesday morning, the blaze had devoured 67,000 acres (27,0000 hectares)of timber, brush and grass left parched by four years of drought and weeks of extreme summer heat.
Containment of the fire, a measure of how much of its perimeter has been enclosed within buffer lines carved through vegetation by ground crews, stood at 15 percent, up from 10 percent on Monday, Cal Fire said.
Water-dropping helicopters and airplane tankers grounded by thick smoke during the first days of the fire returned to the skies as visibility improved on Monday and Tuesday.
Temperatures have also cooled and winds have eased since the fire's peak on Saturday and early Sunday, when flames raced unchecked over 40,000 acres in just 12 hours.
The speed of the blaze caught area residents off-guard, forcing many to flee in chaotic evacuations through gauntlets of fire as surrounding houses and trees went up in flames.
Roughly half of Middletown, a town of about 1,500 residents, was left in ruin, with twisted, blackened debris strewn over charred foundations of buildings reduced to ash. A row of burned-out cars stood next to what remained of a flattened apartment house, and the charred hulks of more vehicles filled a lot where an auto mechanic shop once stood.
Four firefighters were hospitalized with burns they suffered in the early hours of the blaze. More than 2,300 personnel were on the fire lines as of Tuesday, Cal Fire said.
The 585 homes known destroyed represents the greatest property loss from a single wildfire among the scores of conflagrations that have raged across the drought-stricken U.S. West so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
Although the damage has yet to be quantified, the Valley Fire could become the largest insurance loss for a Northern California wildfire since a 1991 Oakland firestorm, said Mark Bove, a senior research meteorologist for New Jersey-based Munich Reinsurance America.
By comparison that calamity destroyed 3,200 buildings, with an industry-wide insured loss of about $3 billion, he said.
A separate blaze raging since Wednesday in the western Sierras near the former gold mining town of Jackson has destroyed 166 residences and 116 outbuildings, with some 10,000 people displaced by evacuations there, officials said.
(Writing and additional reporting from Los Angeles by Steve Gorman; Additional reporting in Middletown by John Russell and Alan Devall; Editing by Andrew Hay and Lisa Shumaker)