Heat wave, winds and low humidity fuel wildfires across California

As a blistering heat wave gripped California this week, firefighters statewide tackled massive wildfires that forced thousands of people to flee their homes.

Temperatures across California were expected to surpass the 100-degree mark Thursday as strong winds in the western half of the state triggered red flag warnings and posed a significant danger to firefighters.

Across the state, firefighters were battling 16 wildfires — some as small as 29 acres and as large as 68,400 acres.

In Butte County, more than 1,100 firefighters who are tackling the Ponderosa fire trudged through rugged woodlands east of Oroville in broiling temperatures, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“The heat does not work in our favor by any means,” said Paul Lowenthal, a Cal Fire spokesman.

Fire crews had hoped to make significant gains battling the blaze overnight, but weather conditions remained hot and dry.

The destructive wildfire, which is 10% contained, swelled to 3,500 acres overnight and continued to threaten hundreds of homes in its path. The fast-growing blaze has already destroyed 30 structures, including 10 homes near Feather Falls.

As flames inched closer to homes Wednesday, a new round of evacuation orders was given to residents living in the communities of Berry Creek, Brush Creek and Mountain House. Authorities estimated at least 1,500 residents received evacuation orders since the blaze started Tuesday afternoon, but not everyone has heeded the warnings, Lowenthal said.

Cal Fire said the blaze was started by an out-of-control campfire that was ignited outside a designated campground and allowed to escape.

John Ballenger, a 29-year-old Oroville resident, was arrested on suspicion of recklessly starting the campfire, Cal Fire said.

Elsewhere, firefighters were scrambling to get a handle on a massive wildfire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

The Helena fire started just after 5 p.m. Wednesday about 59 miles northwest of Redding and scorched 5,000 acres. About 2,000 residents between the town of Helena and Oregon Mountain Summit were forced to flee as the blaze exploded amid terrain-driven winds, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

As the blaze burned along both sides of the Trinity River, firefighters also tackled flames along Highway 299, prompting authorities to close a portion of the road.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service also deployed a group of smoke jumpers, who parachuted into the burn area.

The cause of the fire was not known.

On the northern edge of California, the 64,400-acre Eclipse Complex fire was formed from at least four wildfires that were sparked by lightning on Aug. 15 in Klamath National Forest.

Burning in remote forestland, the wildfire is about 70 miles west of Yreka, Calif.

veronica.rocha@latimes.com

Twitter: VeronicaRochaLA

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