Vern Fisher / The Monterey County Herald / AP Photo

Body found in ashes of new N. California wildfire

The new fire, in Monterey County, has prompted evacuations; the death is being investigated as a suicide

A new wildfire in Northern California destroyed or damaged 10 homes in Monterey County and a body was found among the ashes a week after two other blazes killed five people and destroyed nearly 1,600 homes, fire officials said Sunday.

The unidentified person died in the so-called Tassajara fire, which also prompted mandatory evacuations in Monterey County, said Lynnette Round, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).

California has seen about 6,000 wildfires this year — about 1,500 more than this time last year, an increase many blame on the extra-dry condition caused by the state's record-breaking drought, itself a product of climate change.

The fast-moving new blaze, which covers 1,200 acres, is 10 percent contained and has damaged 10 homes since it flared on Saturday, she said.

Evacuation advisories were issued for residents of Jamesburg and the nearby community of Cachagua, according to CalFire.

Monterey County Sheriff’s Office spokesman John Thornburg said firefighters found a car in the burn area, put the fire out and found a male body of unknown age. While it was originally thought it could possibly be a homicide and detectives were called out, Thornburg said Sunday afternoon, “Right now, all indications point to a suicide,” according to the Santa Cruz Sentinal.

The fire charred a firefighter's home, the Sentinal reported. “I was out fighting the fire on the other end and then my whole place burned down,” he said. “My parent’s house, right below me, it burned down. And my neighbors up on top, their place is burned down. ... It just went so damn fast.”

The fire blocked access to the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.

Farther north, two wildfires have destroyed 1,400 homes and continue to threaten thousands more, fire officials said.

California fire officials say another 162 homes were destroyed in the wildfire north of San Francisco.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says Sunday that damage assessment teams have counted 1,050 homes burned in Lake County, many of them in the town of Middletown.

CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant says the teams have completed about 80 percent of damage assessment, focusing largely on homes. They have not determined how many additional structures, such as sheds, barns and other outbuildings, were destroyed.

Berlant said teams are getting access to affected areas as firefighters make progress but that the count is far from over.

The Valley fire, which began on Sept. 12, is one of the most destructive (PDF) in California’s history.

The fire, which killed at least three people and charred 117 square miles was 53 percent contained. Another 6,400 homes remain under threat.

"Our damage assessment team continues to go in and count home by home, structure by structure but they still have a ways to go before they are finished," Berlant said.

Another 535 homes were destroyed by a separate blaze that killed at least two people and that has burned 110 square miles in the Sierra Nevada foothills, about 170 miles southeast. That blaze was 70 percent contained Sunday and even though it continued to threaten thousands of structures all evacuation orders were lifted.

Residents of Middletown, the area hardest hit by the massive wildfire in Lake County, were allowed to return home Saturday afternoon. Evacuation orders for other areas in Lake County remained.

The Lake County fire tore through 62 square miles in 12 hours, causing thousands of residents to flee after it ignited a week ago. About 19,000 people were ordered to evacuate.

A weekend of heat descended on the wildfires after several favorable days, raising fears that major gains could be undone.

That makes it essential that the smoldering remains of the two giant blazes be dealt with as quickly and thoroughly as possible, said Scott Mclean, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Al Jazeera with wire services

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