(Reuters) – A wildfire churning among mountain towns in Mendocino County in California mushroomed into the largest in the state on Friday, threatening 9,200 homes, as fatigued firefighters battled gusting winds fanning multiple other blazes.
The Mendocino Complex Fire grew to 153,738 acres (62,000 hectares) on Friday, about half the size of Los Angeles. It has destroyed 88 structures and forced the evacuation of 14,000 residents, including in the towns of Nice and Lucerne about 93 miles (150 km) north of San Francisco, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).
Its size overtook the deadly Carr Fire, about 100 miles (160 km) to the northeast, which is among 18 significant wildfires burning across California and 106 nationwide.
Fanned by erratic winds in fuel-choked, tinder-dry forests and scrub, the California blazes have torched 468,467 acres (189,580 hectares) so far this year, destroyed 1,823 homes and structures, and killed at least eight people.
With the peak of the fire season yet to come, that put California on track for its most destructive fire year in over a decade, in terms of area burned, said Cal Fire Deputy Chief Scott McLean.
“These fires are just unpredictable and extremely dangerous. they’ve killed, they’re killers,” said McLean. “It’s going to go through you, around you, over you.”
Several days of light winds had helped firefighters get a grip on smaller blazes, but they faced a “red flag” warning for increasing winds and heightened fire danger through Saturday.
Firefighters from 16 states have rushed to California, and authorities were reinforcing 3,232 personnel on the Mendocino Complex Fire, which is made up of two blazes. One of them alone, the Ranch Fire, was at 112,226 acres (45,416 hectares).
“I expect to see that Ranch Fire continue to grow, and just surpass on its own the Carr Fire,” said McLean.
Stoked by drought-parched vegetation and triple-digit temperatures, the Carr Fire has killed six people, destroyed 1,567 homes and other structures and blackened 131,896 acres (53,376 hectares). It ranks as the sixth most destructive California wildfire on record.
The Carr Fire is 39 percent contained, but firefighters are reinforcing fire breaks to prevent strong, erratic winds from causing it to flare up again this weekend.
(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Jonathan Oatis)