Northern California wildfire wipes out entire neighborhood

Jane Coolidge and her husband Bruce were driving past the town of Weed, California on Friday when they saw a huge plume of black smoke.

Flames had engulfed a large commercial building, and debris hit their truck as it fell onto the freeway. Falling material landed in dry grass and brushwood, starting spot fires on both sides of the road.

“It was upsetting,” Coolidge said.

The mill fire appears to have started near the Roseburg Forest Products property and within minutes spread to nearby homes in the historically black Lincoln Heights community, Weed Mayor Kim Greene said. It quickly became a city conflagration as flames raced from house to house, most of them older wooden structures, she said.

“Forest fires are no longer in the wild,” she said. “It’s just inside the city limits.”

The commercial building that burned was an old building that once housed a planing mill and is now used to store spare parts for Roseburg’s active veneer plant, which was not involved in the fire, said Rebecca Taylor, communications director for Springfield, Ore. Wood products company. There is no operational activity in the building and it’s unclear if the fire started there or nearby, she said.

Authorities had not determined how many homes had been destroyed as of Saturday afternoon but said they were working quickly to assess the damage.

Firefighters reported the blaze that burned 3,921 acres was 20% contained, prompting evacuation orders for nearly 4,000 people and prompting Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency for Siskiyou County. Several injuries were reported, but information on the nature of the injuries and the condition of the wounded was unavailable.

“Most of the Lincoln Heights community is gone,” Greene said Saturday, describing a scene of eerie silence as smoke hung over the smoldering remains of the neighborhood.

The mayor had been at a community center the previous afternoon when someone ran in and yelled that there was a fire across the street. By the time she reached the parking lot, flames had leaped across Railroad Avenue and were hurtling towards Lincoln Heights, kicking up massive plumes of black smoke, she said.

The fire then marched toward Lincoln Park and melted some playground equipment but spared structures and trees before bypassing the green space and burning down more homes in the Shastina Lake area, she said. A number of homes and ranches exist between the two communities, and it’s unclear how they fared. Information is hard to come by because the city has no electricity, internet, or phone lines, Greene said.

Another fire that broke out hours later in a more remote and rugged wooded area about 12 miles to the northwest had burned 3,395 acres and was 5% contained as of Saturday afternoon. About 21 people have been ordered to evacuate the mountain fire, most of them in Gazelle township, officials said.

Both fires were fueled by gusty winds, high temperatures, low relative humidity and vegetation parched by the ongoing drought, said Capt. Robert Foxworthy, a public information officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Scientists have determined this to be the driest 22-year period in at least 1,200 years, concluding that climate change has exacerbated the severity of the mega-drought.

The National Weather Service had issued a red flag warning for Friday due to strong winds gusting up to 35mph and very low humidity, which dropped to as low as 4% that afternoon, said Sven Nelaimischkies, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Medford, Ore. Weed recorded temperatures of 98 degrees, he added.

“All of that has contributed to some pretty explosive growth,” Foxworthy said.

Activity at the mill fire died down overnight through Saturday as winds eased and conditions cooled, allowing crews to begin putting a line around the fire, he said. In contrast, the mountain fire continued to burn actively.

“The two fires have different concerns,” Foxworthy said. “The mill fire burns in a more populated area. Then the mountain fire is in much steeper and more impassable terrain.”

Temperatures were expected to drop about 10 degrees on Saturday, before warming up again on Sunday and potentially meeting warmth recommendation criteria by Tuesday, Nelaimischkies said. Dry conditions were expected to continue but winds should remain much lighter through Sunday, he said.

The fires come amid a trying summer for rural Northern California’s Siskiyou County. The McKinney Fire began in late July in the Klamath National Forest near the Oregon border and quickly grew to become the state’s largest of the season to date. It burned more than 60,000 acres, killing four people and destroying 185 buildings.

Although the cause has not yet been officially determined, several lawsuits filed on behalf of local residents allege that the fire was started by PacifiCorp electrical equipment.

Around the same time, thunderstorms started a series of smaller fires across the county, with the largest, the Yeti Fire, burning nearly 8,000 acres and prompting evacuation alerts in the Happy Camp area.

Parts of Siskiyou County were also damaged last year by lightning-triggered lava fires that burned along the slopes of Mt Shasta east of Weed.

The 2014 Boles fire, which one man eventually pleaded guilty to starting recklessly, destroyed more than 150 buildings in Weed and essentially burned half the town, Greene said.

“We all have PTSD,” she said. “Well, if we hear fire, we’ll leave.” Northern California wildfire wipes out entire neighborhood

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