VACAVILLE, Calif. (Reuters) – A firefighting helicopter pilot was killed in a crash, and scores of homes burned in California on Wednesday as hundreds of lightning-sparked blazes forced tens of thousands of people to flee their dwellings.
Nearly 11,000 lightning strikes were documented during a 72-hour stretch this week in the heaviest spate of thunderstorms to hit California in more than a decade, igniting 367 individual fires. Almost two dozen of them have grown into major conflagrations, authorities said.
Multiple fires raced through hills and mountains adjacent to Northern California’s drought-parched wine country, shutting down Interstate 80 at Fairfield, about 35 miles (56 km) southwest of Sacramento, as flames leapt across the highway, trapping motorists caught in a hectic evacuation.
Police in the nearby town of Vacaville reported that advancing flames had prompted the evacuation of a state prison there and a medical facility for inmates.
Four residents whose communities were overrun by flames hours earlier in the same area suffered burns but survived, though the severity of their injuries was not immediately known, said Will Powers a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).