By Curtis Skinner
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Firefighters battling two devastating and deadly wildfires in drought-stricken Northern California over the past week have gained more ground, fire officials said on Friday, as the search goes on for those reported missing.
Two men and an elderly, disabled woman have been killed by the so-called Valley Fire, which has scorched 73,700 acres (29,825 hectares) just north of Napa County's wine-producing region, according to the Lake County Sheriff's Office.
Authorities were still searching on Friday for people who had been reported missing, said Lake County Undersheriff Chris Macedo, although he could not provide an exact tally.
Two more people, who authorities said defied evacuation orders, lost their lives in the separate Butte Fire, still burning more than a week after it erupted more than 100 miles (160 km) to the east in the Sierra Nevada foothills, in California's Gold Rush country.
Ranking as the most destructive wildfires in California this year, the two conflagrations together have blackened roughly 145,000 acres (58,000 hectares), laid waste to more than 950 homes, and forced some 23,000 people to evacuate.
Cooler conditions, rain and lighter winds have helped firefighters gain additional ground in recent days, though higher temperatures forecasted for Friday could pose a challenge, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said.
Containment of the Valley Fire, a measure of how much of its perimeter has been enclosed within buffer lines carved through vegetation by ground crews, grew to 40 percent overnight, more than triple Monday's figure, Cal Fire reported.
In the Sierra foothills to the east, the Butte Fire was 60 percent contained as of Friday morning, Cal Fire said.
Fire officials say the two blazes are emblematic of an intense wildfire season that is shaping up as one of the state's fiercest on record. Much of September and all of October, historically the worst two months of the year, still lie ahead.
Property losses from the Valley Fire - 585 homes and hundreds more buildings - stand as the highest among the thousand of wildfires that have raged across the entire drought-stricken western United States this summer. The Butte Fire alone has destroyed 365 homes.
In addition to the five deaths attributed to the two blazes thus far, four firefighters were hospitalized with burns on Saturday in the first hours after the Valley Fire broke out.
(Reporting by Curtis Skinner; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jamse Dalgleish)