Friday, June 13, 2008

NorCal wildfires destroy homes, force thousands to flee

Firefighters work along Neal Road to contain the Humboldt... Thick dark smoke rises over the valley floor as firefight... Firefighters work to contain the Humboldt Fire, which has... Butte County firefighter Janet Upton talks on her phone w...

(06-13) 10:38 PDT Paradise, CA (AP) --

Firefighters battled several fast-growing wildfires across Northern California, including a wind-whipped blaze in Butte County that destroyed at least 20 homes and forced thousands of residents to evacuate.

Authorities in Butte County on Thursday closed all roads to Paradise, a town of about 30,000 residents some 90 miles north of Sacramento, and ordered 9,000 residents to leave their homes. An evacuation shelter was set up in nearby Chico.

The fire, which started Wednesday, had grown to more than 20,000 acres and threatened 4,600 structures, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Twenty homes were confirmed to be destroyed, but officials said that number likely could double once crews were able to better assess the damage.

More than 1,500 firefighters were trying to contain the blaze, which was only 16 percent contained by Friday morning. Five firefighters have sustained minor injuries.

Fed by strong, erratic winds on Thursday, the fire spread to the hills of the Butte College campus, where officials had set up an incident command center, said Cal Fire spokesman Joshpae White.

"The winds have calmed down significantly," White said Friday morning. "Hopefully we'll be able to make significantly progress today."

Firefighters, however, needed to move quickly. Winds from the southwest were expected to pick up in the afternoon, which could push the flames closer to Paradise, said White, who was one of the firefighters injured a day earlier.

White 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 a series of destructive blazes from Butte County to the San Francisco Bay area to the Los Padres National Forest.

But 900 firefighters in Santa Cruz County caught a break Friday as cooler temperatures and increased cloud cover helped them battled a wildfire that had destroyed at least 10 homes in the Bonny Doon community, according to Cal Fire. It was 25 percent contained Friday morning and had scorched 600 acres — a revised estimate from 700 acres, after crews were able to map the blaze.

More than 1,500 residents have been told to evacuate their homes in the heavily forested hills about 10 miles northwest of Santa Cruz since the fire broke out Wednesday afternoon. The fire flared just two weeks after another blaze two miles away scorched 4,200 acres and destroyed at least three dozen homes in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

James Eason, 28, a full-time caretaker for his quadriplegic dad Jim Eason, 63, said they spent Thursday hanging out with other evacuees in a supermarket parking lot after spending the night in a Red Cross shelter in Felton, several miles from the blaze.

On Wednesday, they evacuated their $1,300-a-month yurt, a nearly uninsulated wooden-framed structure covered in canvas where they have lived for the past three months. They weren't able to check on their home Thursday and planned to spend another night at the shelter, which was moved to a middle school in nearby Scotts Valley.

"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."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Santa Cruz County early Thursday to free up additional firefighting resources. He declared one in Butte County late Wednesday.

Farther south, another wildfire had charred more than 18,600 acres in the Los Padres National Forest in Monterey County. It was nearly 40 percent contained Friday.

That fire had spread east to a remote part of the Army's Fort Hunter Liggett base Thursday, but winds were driving the flames away from inhabited areas of the military base, said Manny Madrigal, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

Four families with homes near the base were evacuated, but the 5,000 military personnel who live there were not in immediate danger, said Fort Hunter Liggett spokeswoman Helen Elrod.

Several firefighters have suffered injuries while fighting the wind-stoked fires over the past few days.

Three firefighters were burned near Lincoln, about 25 miles northeast of Sacramento, when they were caught in a 65-acre grass fire burning in a dry rice field.

All three were taken to the University of California, Davis Medical Center regional burn center. Two of them had moderate to severe burns to their faces and arms.

"They are both stable and able to communicate. They have significant swelling," said Battalion Chief Greg Guyan. "They'll probably be in the burn unit another week."

The third was released from a hospital after treatment for minor facial burns.

The burn center was also treating a firefighter who was severely burned Tuesday while trying to protect a mobile home near a wind-blown grass fire southeast of Sacramento. Capt. Steven J. Eggiman, a 21-year veteran of the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, was in good condition Thursday after undergoing surgery burns to his hands, arms and nose.


Associated Press Writers Terence Chea and Jason Dearen in San Francisco and Don Thompson in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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