Despite a little firefighting help from Mother Nature and the governor’s office, a wind-blown blaze in Butte County spread to more than 8,000 acres Thursday, destroying about 30 homes and forcing more than 9,000 residents in a rural enclave to flee the flames.
Fire leaped up canyons toward Paradise, a heavily wooded town of nearly 30,000 residents 15 miles northeast of Chico, despite improving conditions during a day that saw winds in Northern California ease for the first time in three days.
Local authorities said that dozens of homes just outside the town’s southern limits were consumed by the blaze as fire crews fought a pitched battle house by house.
The blaze shifted late Thursday afternoon and burned to the edge of Butte College, where aerial tankers helped beat back the flames. Earlier in the day, the blaze snapped high-power lines to the isolated community, knocking out electricity to more than half the town’s homes.
But with anticipated high temperatures rising well into the 90s and a wind shift being forecast today, authorities expressed concern that the flames could be driven back toward the heavily wooded town nestled in the foothills rising above Chico.
Chuck Rough, town manager and director of emergency services, said more than a third of Paradise’s residents were being evacuated late Thursday from the southern neighborhoods that would be hit first if the fire reversed course. But that effort was being slowed because flames had shut down two of the three main roads out of town.
Residents filed out of town slowly in a caravan of cars and trucks that were loaded down with belongings. Rough called it the largest evacuation in the town’s history.
“Thank God, so far the town hasn’t been hit,” Rough said as night fell. “We’ve averted some very, very close calls in the past, but this is certainly the most threatening in my 12 years here. We characterize this as the big one for us. We’re very vulnerable.”
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the counties of Butte and Santa Cruz, where another blaze threatened homes. He also ordered more crews, aerial tankers and other equipment into the battle against the fires, the latest in a three-day siege of wind-whipped blazes to hit Northern California.
National Weather Service forecasters said that winds across Northern California, which had gusted up to 40 mph earlier in the week, had fallen to about 15 mph by Thursday.
In Santa Cruz County, the winds shifted, bringing in moist air and aiding firefighters on the blaze, which threatened more than 1,000 residences and 50 businesses in the rural community of Bonny Doon.
“That decrease in the winds has allowed us to aggressively go in” to fight the Bonny Doon blaze, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
More than 700 firefighters, the bulk of them from the state, were surrounding the blaze, which started Wednesday afternoon and by Thursday morning had grown to 700 acres, with just 5% contained.
The fire, in a remote corner of the county about a dozen miles from the coast, is the second to hit Santa Cruz County. Two weeks ago, a mountain blaze to the east destroyed 38 structures and blackened 4,000 acres.
Butte County, meanwhile, continued to reel from its second big blaze in just three days. A fire outside Oroville destroyed more than 20 homes before it was controlled this week. The latest blaze erupted in a swath of wild lands east of Chico and spread quickly with the winds Wednesday.
More than 600 firefighters were on the scene, but the blaze was just 10% contained.
Schwarzenegger’s emergency declarations for the two counties included an order to activate the state’s DC-10 and DC-7 retardant-dropping aircraft as well as to shift additional firefighters to the region. The state Office of Emergency Services was monitoring the incidents along with the forestry department.
Schwarzenegger said in a statement that the state “is committed to doing whatever it takes” to battle the blazes.