A fire believed to have started at a lakeside campground burned a three-mile-wide swath for 20 miles in Shasta County this weekend, destroying as many as 100 houses and driving about 2,500 people from their homes, state and federal fire officials said.
The 26,000-acre blaze roared down out of Jones Valley, exploding houses, melting cars and leaving telephone poles dangling in midair, hanging from the wires they had supported. It hit and missed homes according to no discernible pattern.
It looked, one woman said, “like an ungodly sunrise.”
The Jones Valley fire was the worst of several wildfires burning throughout the state Sunday in a fire season that is fast becoming one of the worst in state history. About 660,000 acres have burned thus far this year, state officials estimated.
Officials attributed the heavy fire season to consecutive hot, dry summers. “And it’s not over yet,” said Susie Wong, a spokeswoman for the governor’s Office of Emergency Services. Amounts of downed timber and dried grasses are near critical levels in many areas, she said.
Investigators said the cause of the Jones fire was human and appeared to be accidental. They said they are not treating it as suspicious. It started about 4 a.m. Saturday in a Shasta Lake campground near Backbone Ridge, northeast of Redding, and grew through the morning, picking up speed on the hot, dry winds that swirled through the afternoon.
More than 1,150 firefighters fought the blaze, which officials estimated was 50% contained by Sunday evening.
A volunteer firefighter, Karen Savage, a 44-year-old mother of three from Junction City, was killed when she was struck by a firetruck. No other injuries were reported, in part because of the rapid evacuation of several small towns east of Redding.
Many residents of the tiny town of Bella Vista, about 15 miles northeast of Redding, were notified of the fire by Ron Burris, a newspaper carrier making his predawn rounds Saturday. Others were contacted by sheriff’s deputies and neighbors.
They left in a hurry.
Larry Buchanan, a retired auto worker, abandoned his collection of classic cars and a barn full of antiques.
“I didn’t give it a thought,” he said. “I was more concerned about getting out. I don’t even have my socks on I left so fast.”
Buchanan and other Bella Vista residents--many, like him, retirees--hopscotched down the road from their homes, stopping first at the houses of friends or at motels. But the fire, driven by swirling 25-mph winds, kept coming and they kept moving, finally arriving at an emergency evacuation center at Anderson High School. They spent the night on the school’s cafeteria floor.
Firefighters said they got the upper hand on the blaze before dawn Sunday, when the winds died down. By daylight, they had the major hot spots smothered. And by Sunday evening, most of the evacuees were allowed back home, including Buchanan, who found his house and possessions spared.
Others weren’t so lucky. Some homes were reduced to piles of ash, others untouched.
Vandell Johnston, 68, a retired steamfitter from Downey, moved up north just last winter to an old masonry-and-wood-beam house he called his dream home.
“With the creek out back, the deer in the evening, the beavers and quail, it was country,” he said, talking around a chaw of Red Man tobacco.
Sunday afternoon, Johnston’s dream looked as if it had been exploded by a bomb. There was little left.
Mickie Lawson said she left behind two dogs and two cats, even the family birth certificates when she fled. “You looked out the window and it was staring at you. The flames were high. It was like an ungodly sunrise. . . . I stood there and I picked out three blouses. Why I didn’t grab a bunch I just don’t know.”
Dave Cantrell, a long-haul trucker, heard about the fire as he and his wife, Arlene, were driving up the Central Valley, headed for Oregon with a load of fireproof shingles. They got off the freeway and tried to get back home just after dawn. They didn’t make it, and neither did their house. It burned to the ground.
“There’s no easy run in life, is there?” Cantrell said. “You leave home and think everything is fine, then whammo, you don’t have a house left.”
Winds in the area subsided Sunday afternoon and were down to about 5 mph. As of late Sunday, firefighters reported the only persistent blaze was near Backbone Ridge, where the fire had started.
Consecutive years of dry conditions have made the state especially susceptible to wildfires, said Wong, the emergency services spokeswoman.
Most of this year’s fires have been in remote locations and most of the burned acreage has been uninhabited. An example is the 42,000-acre fire, still largely uncontained, burning in the Rumsey Canyon area of Colusa County. Other, smaller fires continued to burn in the Big Bar area of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest; near Pendola in the Tahoe National Forest; near Geyserville in Sonoma County; and another brush fire near Fremont, an East Bay suburb.
Along the Central Coast, two fires in the Los Padres National Forest continued to burn after scorching more than 85,000 acres.
Eric Bailey reported from Shasta County and Terry McDermott from Los Angeles.
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A wildfire in the Jones Valley near Redding burned more than 100 homes over the weekend. It is one of several wildfires burning throughout the state.
Sources: National Interagency Fire Center, California Department of Forestry