A wind-swept wildfire in rural Northern California tore through a neighborhood and destroyed about 100 homes and other buildings, fire officials said Saturday after at least two people were injured and thousands were forced from their homes.
The Mill Fire started shortly before 1 p.m. Friday just north of Weed, a city of about 2,600 people 402 kilometers north of San Francisco. The flames raced into the Lincoln Heights neighborhood where a significant number of homes burned and residents had to flee for their lives.
Two people were brought to Mercy Medical Center Mount Shasta. One was in stable condition and the other was transferred to UC Davis Medical Center, which has a burn unit.
Cal Fire Siskiyou Unit Chief Phil Anzo said crews worked all day and night to protect structures in Weed and in a subdivision to the east known as Carrick Addition.
“There’s a lot at stake on that Mill Fire,” he said. “There’s a lot of communities, a lot of homes there.”
Weather conditions improved overnight and firefighters were able to get 20 per cent containment but another blaze, the Mountain Fire, that broke out Friday northwest of Weed grew substantially. No injuries or buildings had been reported lost in that fire. The causes for both fires were under investigation.
Anzo estimated about 100 homes and other buildings were lost in the Mill Fire. Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for Siskiyou County and said a federal grant had been received “to help ensure the availability of vital resources to suppressthe fire.”
Naomi Vogelsang, 46, may have lost her 10-year-old English bulldog, Bella, to the Mill Fire. Vogelsang said she was napping on a couch when a friend told her to leave immediately.
“Everything was black,” she said Saturday. “Things were exploding, you couldn’t see in front of your face.”
A firefighter picked her up and put her on a firetruck to get to safety but her dog, due to turn 11 next month, would not follow. The houses all around her were burned.
Vogelsang said she slept on a bench in Weed on Friday night because she could not get a ride to the evacuation center. On Saturday morning, she was planning to go to a casino with the $20 she had left.
Her luck couldn’t get much worse, she said.
“My dog was my everything,” she said. “I just feel like I lost everything that mattered.”
California is in a deep drought as it heads into what traditionally is the worst of the fire season. Scientists say climate change has made the West warmer and drier over the last three decades and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
In the last five years, California has experienced the largest and most destructive fires in state history. Weed has seen three major fires since 2014.
The latest fire started at or near Roseburg Forest Products, which makes wood products. Evacuation orders were quickly put in effect for 7,500 people.
Judy Christenson, 63, said a fire in Oregon nearly 40 years ago burned down her home in six minutes as she rushed to evacuate her three kids. The experience left her traumatized and now she is scared every time there’s a fire near her home in Weed. She keeps leashes on her dogs all the time so she can grab them easily if they need to leave with a moment’s notice.
“It’s like every summer I have to have a to-go bag packed,” she said.
She was working as a teacher’s assistant in Mount Shasta on Friday when the fire broke out. The power went out at the school and she could see a big plume of black smoke by the mountain. She wants to move to get away from the fires but she said she needs to retire to have enough money.
Yvasha Hilliard said she was home in Lincoln Heights when she heard “a big boom” and ran outside to see her neighbor’s house on fire.
“It was like fire coming out of the sky,” she said. “It was terrible.”
Hilliard said her home was among those that burned. “We lost everything,” she said.
Dr. Deborah Higer, medical director at the Shasta View Nursing Center, said all 23 patients at the facility had to be evacuated. Twenty went to local hospitals while three stayed at her own home, where hospital beds were set up.
Rebecca Taylor, communications director for Springfield, Oregon-based Roseburg, said a large empty building at the edge of company property burned. All employees were evacuated and none reported injuries, she said.
At about the time the blaze started, power outages were reported that affected some 9,000 customers, and several thousand remained without electricity late into the night due to the wildfire, according to power company PacifiCorp.
Rich Biddlecome, 76, of Weed, was sitting at his desk when the power went out. Soon after, he went outside and saw several explosions of fireballs at Roseburg Forest Products across the street.
He made plans to meet up with his grandson and then started putting his three cats in carriers to evacuate. He grabbed computers as well, but didn’t think to grab extra clothes.
“I left with shoes, no socks, a pair of shorts and a T-shirt,” he said Saturday morning in the parking lot of an evacuation center in Yreka as ash swirled around him.
It was the third large wildfire in as many days in California, which is now sweltering under a heat wave that was expected to push temperatures past the 100-degree mark in many areas through Labor Day.
Thousands also were ordered to flee on Wednesday from a fire in Castaic, north of Los Angeles, and a blaze in eastern San Diego County, near the Mexican border, where two people were severely burned and several homes were destroyed. All evacuation orders were lifted Friday.
The Mill Fire was burning about an hour’s drive from the Oregon state line. It was only about 30 miles (48 kilometers) southeast of where the McKinney Fire – the state’s deadliest of the year – erupted in late July. It killed four people and destroyed dozens of homes.