PARADISE - As a wildfire bore down on his home of 15 years, hopscotching between properties here, Larry Knifong decided to take his chances and stay - that is, until the flames raced up a ridge toward this ranch-style house.

"It was just moving very, very fast, it was just picking and choosing what it wanted," said Knifong, who was back at his property Friday after the fire passed through. It had spared his home, but his neighbors down the way weren't so lucky.

At least 50 homes were destroyed and thousands of residents evacuated the Butte County town of Paradise, about 90 miles north of Sacramento, to escape the blaze that contributed to at least one death - an elderly woman who suffered a heart attack while evacuating.

That blaze was just one of a series vexing firefighters across Northern California on Friday. A wildfire in Monterey County continued to chew through the Los Padres National Forest, and flames in the Santa Cruz County kept hundreds of residents away from their mountain homes.

Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the Butte County fire was the most dangerous because it was moving toward Paradise on Friday, prompting officials to call for another round of precautionary evacuations for 4,500 people there. About 9,000 resident evacuated the area a day earlier, but officials had reopened roads to some of those homes Friday.

Only 20 percent of the fire was contained by Friday evening, and it had charred almost 36 square miles. Five firefighters had sustained minor injuries.

Shifting, persistent winds continued to stoke the fire late Friday, said Cal Fire spokesman Joshpae White. More wind was expected for Saturday.

"It's kind of a mess. You've got this wind moving back and forth. The winds are really squirrely. They're changing direction," White said.

White, one of the firefighters injured, said he was escorting reporters through the fire area in a pickup truck when the flames quickly began closing in. After safely evacuating the reporters, he helped nearby firefighters escape and was forced to drive through a wall of fire.

"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."

White and another firefighter were treated for minor burns.

In recent days, hot temperatures, steady winds and tinder-dry vegetation have fueled the destructive blazes around the state.

In Santa Cruz County, firefighters got a handle on a wildfire that has scorched 1 square mile and burned at least 10 homes in the Bonny Doon community.

Many of the 1,500 residents ordered to evacuate were allowed to return to their homes Friday. An evacuation order was still in place, however, for some areas where firefighters were still trying to rein in a blaze that was 65 percent contained.

Another wildfire had charred more than 35 square miles in the Los Padres National Forest in Monterey County. It was nearly 40 percent contained by Friday.

In southeastern Colorado, about 290 firefighters were battling a wildfire that had burned over 65 square miles in and around a military training site. Aided by calmer winds, the firefighters were able to get the fire 10 percent contained, fire management team spokesman Steve Segin said.

"They've got a lot of work ahead of them," Segin said.

The fire started in the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site but spread to surrounding federal, state and private land after two straight days of strong winds. It was threatening eight ranch homes.

Across the country in eastern North Carolina, areas north of a fire burning around the Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge were still to be under Saturday the most severe air pollution warning the state has ever issued. The warning includes the cities of Edenton and Elizabeth City.

The fire has burned over 62 square miles and has remained 40 percent contained for several days. Fire spokesman Dean McAlister said firefighters expect it will continue to burn until the area gets enough rain to extinguish the fires smoldering in the peat soil.

___Associated Press writers Jordan Robertson in San Jose, Tom Verdin in Sacramento, Jason Dearen in San Francisco and Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.