‘A tinderbox’: Firefighter dies as thousands battle California wildfires

Updated 6:35 PM EDT, Sat August 1, 2015

Story highlights

NEW: Evacuation advisory is issued for 5,000 residences in Clearlake

David Ruhl of South Dakota died fighting the Frog Fire near Adin

Governor declares state of emergency

(CNN) —  

A firefighter battling a wildfire in California died in the line of duty this week, the U.S. Forest Service said in a statement.

David Ruhl of Rapid City, South Dakota, lost his life fighting the Frog Fire in far northern California’s Modoc National Forest, near Adin. Rescuers found his body Friday morning after searching for him through the night, the Forest Service said.

Ruhl, survived by a wife and two children, had been on temporary assignment in the area since June. The Forest Service didn’t release details about his death, adding that it was under investigation.

“Our hearts are heavy for Dave, Dave’s family, friends, the entire Forest Service and wildland fire community,” said Forest Supervisor Craig Bobzien.

David Ruhl died in one of the fires.
PHOTO: Courtesy US Forest Service
David Ruhl died in one of the fires.

In all, 9,000 firefighters worked 24 large fires Saturday in California, where a four-year drought has created ideal conditions for a wildfires, said the state agency Cal Fire.

In fact, thousands of lightning strikes since Thursday ignited hundreds of small wildfires, but those thunderstorms brought little rain, authorities said, and the smaller fires became part of larger fire complexes.

Threats of dry thunderstorms will continue through the weekend, elevating fire dangers, especially in northern California, where officials posted red flag warnings.

The Frog Fire, which consumed at least 800 acres since Thursday, is one of more than a dozen large wildfires burning across California. About 8,000 firefighters are working to contain them, according to wildfire fighting agency Cal Fire.

The fires vary in size. The White Fire in Santa Barbara County is about 50 acres, and the deadly Frog Fire has consumed at least 3,900 acres since it was spotted Thursday and is just 4% contained. The recently snuffed-out Lake Fire in San Bernandino County burned more than 31,000 acres before it was contained.

50,000 acres scorched

Aside from Ruhl’s death, Cal Fire has reported minor injuries and notes that most of the fires are over 60% contained. However, the land damage has been substantial in some cases. Fires in San Bernardino and Alpine counties have incinerated nearly 50,000 acres.

Rocky Fire, one of the largest, is only 5% contained and has burned through 18,000 acres in Lake County. Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant says it has destroyed three homes and led to a mandatory evacuation order for about 500 homes (1,000 people) under threat.

About 5,000 residences in Clearlake are under an evacuation advisory as the fire approaches Lower Lake, authorities said. At least 1,000 people were under a mandatory evacuation order, Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said earlier.

The fire’s location in steep terrain is making work difficult for firefighters.

In some areas, firefighters were surrounding homes to defend them as the fire passes, Polito said.

Some Lake County residents are carrying on as usual amid the precarious conditions.

“We can see the smoke and it appears to be blowing near us but there are no evacuations here that I know of. We are open for business and hoping the wind blows the other way because we have two tournaments tomorrow,” says Ted Mattila of Buckingham Golf and Country Club in Kelseyville.

The fire had been moving toward west toward some towns, but cool offshore winds Friday night into Saturday were pushing it back to the east, Polito said.

“But with the cool air in the night, it is going to the east now, and we’re hoping that it stays going that way for a little while,” Polito said Saturday morning.

Dozens of cars set ablaze as wildfire jumps California highway

Record drought

California’s record-setting drought, entering its fourth year, has “turned much of the state into a tinderbox,” Gov. Brown said.

Temperatures in Sacramento and other areas of Northern California, where many of the fires are located, have topped 100 degrees recently. And while temperatures are cooling this weekend in Lake County, “conditions are so dry from the drought that won’t do much to stop the fire,” said Berlant. His department is urging extra caution for residents and visitors.

CNN’s Joe Sutton, Tony Marco and Jason Hanna contributed to this report.