National News

Twin wildfires threatening 10,000 California homes

Posted July 31, 2018 6:34 a.m. EDT
Updated July 31, 2018 6:05 p.m. EDT

— Twin wildfires tearing through vineyards and brushy hills threatened some 10,000 homes in Northern California Tuesday – yet another front in the seemingly endless summer of wildfires that have ravaged some of the most scenic areas of the state.

The two fires straddling Mendocino and Lake counties had burned seven homes by Monday night along with some 107 square miles of rural land.

About 100 miles north, the so-called Carr Fire that has burned more than 800 homes and killed six people has become the ninth-most-destructive wildfire in California history, said Scott McLean, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In Lake County, evacuation orders were in effect for the 4,700-resident town of Lakeport, along with some smaller communities and a section of Mendocino National Forest. In all, some 10,000 people have been warned to flee, fire officials said.

Lakeport, north of San Francisco, is the county seat and a popular destination for bass anglers and boaters on the shores of Clear Lake. But by Monday night, it was a ghost town, the main streets deserted.

A few miles away, embers, ash and smoke swirled through vineyards where at least one home had gone up in flames. Firefighters set blazes at the bottom of hills in order to burn up the tinder-dry brush before flames cresting the ridge tops could feed on it and surge downhill. A fleet of aircraft made continuous water and fire retardant drops on the blaze, filling the air with the roar of their engines.

But not everyone heeded orders issued Sunday and Monday to evacuate.

Derick Hughes II remained behind at his property in Nice, Calif., where he ran sprinklers on his roof and removed yard plants that could catch fire.

The 32-year-old Marine Corps veteran sent his wife and two daughters to safety along with three carloads of belongings. But he said he had too much at stake to leave himself. He bought his three-bedroom house last year using a loan from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"This is everything I bled for, and I've worked really hard to get to where I am, and I'm just not willing to give it up so easily," he said over the phone. "Some people may think that's selfish of me, and I have insurance. But the way things go, I'd rather not start over."

Farther north, police said five people were arrested on suspicion of entering areas evacuated due to the explosive wildfire around Redding, Calif.

The blaze, which killed two firefighters and four civilians, including two children, has now destroyed 818 homes and 311 outbuildings and damaged 165 homes, McLean said.

More than 27,000 people remained evacuated from their homes, although another 10,000 were allowed to return Monday as fire crews reinforced lines on the western end of Carr Fire.

Some 12,000 firefighters were battling the blaze. Fire officials were hopeful that they could make progress containing the blaze, which was 23 percent contained.

More than 130 firefighters from North Carolina are among those who have traveled to California to help in the fight.

"Moving winds around are pushing that fire quickly uphill or downhill," Lee Thornhill, of the U.S. Forest Service office in Asheville.

The Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service offices in North Carolina combined to send 44 firefighters to California. The North Carolina Forest Service sent another 89 people.

In addition to the Carr Fire, they are battling the Ferguson Fire, which has burned up more than 57,000 acres. Both fires have claimed the lives of residents and firefighters.

"There are risks out there, and we mitigate as many risks as we can, but we don't live in a perfect world, and sometimes things happen," Thornhill said. "Working in the smoke, working in the heat, working 16 hours a day out there on the line. it is something that gets in your blood. You either like it or you don't."

The fires are among 17 burning across the state, where fire crews have been stretched to the limit.

In Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, an arson fire that destroyed seven homes last week was 82 percent contained Monday.

Fire crews also have battled numerous small brushfires this summer, most charring only a few acres but still threatening homes in built-up areas along parched foothills. A 10-acre fire damaged 13 homes and apartments Monday in Santa Clarita, northwest of Los Angeles, county fire officials said.

McLean said there was no guarantee of safety in a state that has been ravaged by years of drought that has turned trees and brush to tinder.

"Anything could happen anywhere. That's the nature of the beast for all of these fires," he said. "The vegetation is so dry all it takes is a spark to get it going."

North Carolinians also are fighting wildfires in Colorado, Texas, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Montana and Nevada, and Thornhill said the situation is becoming all too familiar.

"Climates change, things are drier in certain areas," he said. "We are going to see more fire out there on the landscape, wildfire on the landscape."

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Thanawala reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Lorin Eleni Gill and Olga Rodriguez also contributed to this report.