California Fires Leave Behind Apocalyptic-Like Destruction

Thousands of embattled firefighters are rushing to control fires in communities across Lake County, California.
6:49 | 09/15/15

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Transcript for California Fires Leave Behind Apocalyptic-Like Destruction
the girl from golden had to get away so I could grow ? ? but it don't matter where I'm going I'll still call my hometown home ? ? I'll still call my hometown home ? flames as high as skyscrapers hop-scotching the canopies. Raining flaming terror. Families fleeing, navigating this hellish landscape. Cinders swirling in the air. 23,000 people displaced in northern California. We spent time today with a crew of firefighters from Riverside county, California. Exhaustion remains one of the greatest perils. You guys pretty tired? We're getting there. All our resources have been going at it about a month, month and a half. Reporter: Like others, selective about what they could save. Firefighters are letting this burn. They're not concerned with this kind of grass fire. Their main concern right now because they're so overwhelmed is protecting homes and people. Reporter: The valley fire, 100 miles north of San Francisco, threatening napa county, fueled by dry conditions and 30-mile-per-hour winds exploding from a small fire over the weekend to a 60,000 square acre monster. One of the fastest-vedding and most-destructive fires in California this year. Up to 1,000 homes and structures destroyed. One person killed. So many unprepared for its speed, trying desperately to outrun it. This man driving through the worst of it. These time lapse videos capture the panicked exodus. Watch as this driver struggles to find his way out. Fire everywhere he turns. You can hear the fire's net general roar. Others cornered by those ferocious flames and smoke. Scariest thing I've ever been through in my life. We've lost all of our homes. And some pets. We're just devastated. Reporter: As the flames overtook an entire town, overwhelmed firefighters did what they could. These guys are very limited on resources. Every engine has got multiple structures to try and protect. Just can't save everything. Reporter: Retired rifrt Todd sudmire live streaming the desperate fight to save middletown, California. Putting water on this particular house because it's at a corner. They don't want to lose this corner. Reporter: Officials estimate nearly 40% of middletown now scorched Earth. This is what one house looked like before the blaze. And this is all that is left of it today. Over the weekend, four firefighters were burned. Now recovering. One of them, Richard raf, giving thumbs-up from his hospital bed. We are really in a battle with nature, that nature is more powerful than we are. Reporter: About 11,000 firefighters are battling the fires, putting in grueling shifts. Many lasting more than 24 hours, some over 36 hours. Crews so fatigued they've been flopping down in driveways or fields for just G. We start tonight with the breaking news. The state of emergency in California where 12 wildfires are burning right now. One in pao-called valley fire, is fierce, fast-moving, and fatal. And tonight we've got the stunning images and the survivors, both human and here's ABC's Matt Gutman. Reporter: The fire swept down the valley with apocalyptic fury. Middletown hard. You start hearing all kinds of rumors. But you don't really know what to believe. I kept Borg and hoping for the best. There's nothing I can do at that point. Reporter: He called his wife Heidi with whom we caught up later. When I talked to my husband, I've never heard him raise his voice, and he was knocking on doors to tell people to get out. And he told one person, you've got three minutes or the sheriff's coming for you. Reporter: Heidi evacuated minutes before the fire hit town. Fortunately those flames stopped right here on Lopez's property. If the fire had moved ten feet closer to the house, this wouldn't be standing? I don't know how it's still here. I really don't know. Everything is gone. Reporter: Lopez's house was spared. His daughter's wasn't. Everything is gone. Our house is gone. We only moved in there in November. All we have is gone. We don't know what to do. It's just devastating. Reporter: Still tonight her father is going pack to the fire. You're going back on the fire line? Back on the fire line up in the Cobb area. That's what I do. I'm a fireman. That's all I know how to do is help whoever else is out there that I can help. Reporter: Tonight thousands of people like Lopez on the fire lines but behind him scientists trying to better understand the fires. My colleague Clayton Sandell visited this federal fire science laboratory in missoula, Montana, where wildfires are studied. Look into the flame zone. There's a little trough. That's the air pushing those little parcels forward. Reporter: Scientists here warn that stopping destructive fires is getting tougher. More people are building homes in wildfire-prone areas. And more flames are being put out before they naturally burn off dry trees and brush, fuel for mega fires. In this experiment we see how dry send it pushes the flames forward. They're like waves in water. And they are pushing forward. They exit the flame zone at the head. And they splash into the fuels at the top. And that's what lights the new particles on fire. That's how your wildfires get big? That's how they get big, that's how they spread. Reporter: Today as the fires continue to burn, hundreds of evacuees from that fast-moving valley fire find temporary shelter in tents while others take refuge in this shopping center parking lot. Tonight, don Lopez's family, not fighting fires, but fighting to keep its spirit up. I think we've eaten maybe one meal. In the past two days. It's like -- Still you keep a smile on your face. You have to. Because you go to the campground and there are people that have lost their houses. Reporter: For "Nightline," I'm Matt Gutman in middletown, California.

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