By DON THOMPSON
Associated Press WriterPARADISE, Calif. (AP) -- Strong, erratic winds that had been complicating efforts to fight wildfires in Northern California calmed down Friday, but firefighters were still struggling to get the upper hand on one stubborn fire that scorched more than 31 square miles and threatened 4,600 structures.
The weather reprieve was predicted to be brief, as winds were expected to pick up later Friday and possibly push the flames closer to Paradise, a town of about 30,000 residents some 90 miles north of Sacramento.
The blaze already had destroyed at least 20 homes. Authorities on Thursday had closed all roads to Paradise and ordered 9,000 people to leave.
One elderly woman, whose identity was not immediately released, suffered a heart attack during the evacuation and died, said Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Cal Fire spokesman Joshpae White was observing the fire Thursday when it closed in. At one point, he said he was forced to drive through a wall of flames.
"It looked like a million blowtorches across the road," White said. "We were taking significant heat. The heat was so intense, the windshield began cracking."
In recent days, hot temperatures, steady winds and tinder-dry vegetation have fueled a series of destructive blazes in the northern heartland of California.
To the south of Paradise, a fire in the Santa Cruz mountains threatened homes.
Nine hundred firefighters caught a break Friday as cooler temperatures and increased cloud cover helped them gain some ground on the 1 square mile blaze.
More than 1,500 residents of Bonny Doon, a heavily forested town about 10 miles northwest of Santa Cruz, have been told to leave since the fire broke out Wednesday afternoon. Among them was James Eason, 28, who lives with his quadriplegic father in a yurt, a nearly uninsulated wooden-framed structure covered in canvas.
"It's stressful and frustrating. It makes you anxious not knowing if you're going to have a place to go back to," James Eason said. "All of a sudden, with the fire, the yurt doesn't seem so bad. We've started to like it a whole lot."
Another wildfire had charred more than 29 square miles in the Los Padres National Forest in Monterey County. It was nearly 40 percent contained by Friday.
In southeastern Colorado, a fire that started on a military training site jumped the Purgatoire River, a natural fire break, and was threatening eight nearby ranches.
Nearly 250 firefighters were battling the blaze in the remote and rugged country. It had burned over 65 square miles and was not controlled at all, with gusting winds hampering efforts for containment.
Across the country, authorities in North Carolina issued an air quality advisory for Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham through Friday after smoke from a wildfire burning in a wildlife refuge drifted westward. The lightning-sparked blaze has burned more than 60 square miles in and around the Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge, and was only 40 percent contained.
Authorities say without a massive rainstorm, firefighters can do little to extinguish the blaze and put an end to the smoky weather.
Associated Press writers Jordan Robertson in San Jose, Calif., Tom Verdin in Sacramento, Calif., and Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)