Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Amador and Calaveras counties after a fast-moving wildfire exploded Friday to nearly 65,000 acres, damaging highways and threatening 6,000 structures.
Thousands of residents were forced to flee their homes as flames from the Butte fire moved closer to the Sierra foothill communities of Angels Camp, Westpoint and Railroad Flat.
A mandatory evacuation order was issued in the afternoon for about 2,700 residents of San Andreas, in Calaveras County, but the fire changed direction as it approached the town, and the order was lifted.
More than 2,400 firefighters were battling the blaze, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant, but unusually hot and dry conditions were making the fire unpredictable and extremely volatile. The fire was only 5% contained.
The fire started near Jackson, in Amador County, on Wednesday afternoon and grew with astonishing speed, helped in part by triple-digit heat. Flames destroyed six structures and two outbuildings and were threatening thousands more.
Steep hillsides and four years of drought have also contributed to the fire's unprecedented growth, Cal Fire officials said.
Farther south, flames from a massive wildfire burning in the Sierra Nevada were expected to soon surround the famed stump of an ancient sequoia that was shown at the Chicago World's Fair more than a century ago, the U.S. Forest Service said.
The Chicago Stump, a remnant of the General Noble Tree that was cut down so sections could be reassembled for the 1897 Chicago World's Fair, sits in the path of the Rough fire's southern face.
"It's imminent," Jim Schwarber, a spokesman for the fire's incident management team, said of the fire surrounding the area that contains stands of trees thousands of years old.
The fire, which has spread southwest by almost 20,000 acres over the last two days to 119,069 acres in the area of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, was started by lightning July 31 and has seen a resurgence this week as extended heat and wind have fueled its growth, Schwarber said.
To try to protect the Chicago Stump, crews have cleared nearby brush and ringed the area in fire retardant, set up a sprinkler system to keep flames from directly hitting it and wrapped the stump in a reflective foil that wards off radiant heat.
Firefighters have cleared brush up to 500 feet from sequoia groves that could be in the fire's path, the Forest Service said. But the trees offer their own natural defenses, Schwarber said.
Sequoias are taller, thicker and do not allow for large amounts of underbrush to grow, minimizing the fire's intensity around them.
"There's areas of moonscape from this fire, but the sequoias are not piles of ashes," Schwarber said. "Some of these groves are thousands of years old. Most of them have shown multiple burn scars on them from previous fires that they've survived. We're hopeful that this fire will just be another one."
Since the blaze started, steep terrain has kept firefighters from attacking flames directly in many places, and smoke that has settled over the valleys and ridges has limited water and fire retardant drops.
The damage is spread across more than 186 square miles, and the fire was making a push southwest toward Dunlap and other communities. Firefighters had stopped its spread north of the Kings River.
Among those forced to flee this week were the staff and inhabitants of an exotic cat sanctuary. Several cheetahs, panthers, tigers and lions were evacuated from Cat Haven, in Dunlap, as smoke and flames from the blaze moved into their habitat.
Even smaller animals, such as Carlos and Luz Ochoa's five Chihuahas, could be heading out soon if things take a turn for the worse.
"We're all cooped up in a room waiting and watching TV," said Carlos Ochoa, 54, who with his wife owns Sequoia Kings Canyon RV Park at the edge of the evacuation zone.
He has filled four five-gallon containers of gasoline in case crews block off the lone gas station in town and loaded up boxes with coffee, sugar, and canned food.
"I'm going to be here, but hey, better be prepared for 'what if' and this is that 'what if' right now," Ochoa said.
He said authorities calmed locals' nerves when they briefed everyone on the fire's progress earlier in the week and told them how to prepare. The trailer park is full of families and senior citizens, they said, the kind of folks who aren't likely to drop everything and run at the first sign of trouble.
Only one family has left — and that's because one of their children had asthma, Luz Ochoa said. Her husband said he has been keeping tabs on their neighbors and offered to haul residents in the trailer attached to his pickup truck if they are all ordered to go.
"I've been trying to keep morale up. I was always told to keep my head on straight, don't panic. That's what I'm doing now," Carlos Ochoa said. "I told them that if something goes down, I'm going to drive around, honk my horn with my lights on — that's the warning. I would be the last to leave."
Down the road at Clingan's Junction Grocery, the owners have kept the store open an hour later than normal for firefighters. Employees were busy preparing in case they were told to leave.
"It's been hectic here; I don't really have time to talk," said employee Amy Soltero. "We've been running around putting away stuff."
Crews plan on making a stand against the fire on McKenzie Ridge east of California 180, Schwarber said. But every afternoon when the sun warms the area, winds push the flames uphill.
"Our level of confidence in holding the fire is … moderate," Schwarber said after a long pause. "We won't be surprised if it continues to move across the contingency line. This fire has been extremely resistant to control."
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