Northern California Wildfires Forces Hundreds to Flee Homes

June 13, 2008

Firefighters struggled to gain control of a series of wind-driven wildfires burning across Northern California, including a raging forest fire that forced hundreds to flee their homes in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The fast-moving blaze in the Bonny Doon area, about 10 miles northwest of Santa Cruz, grew to 700 acres and was only 5 percent contained Thursday morning. Mandatory evacuations were ordered for 500 residents in the heavily forested hills. Voluntary evacuations were in place for another 1,000 residents.

The fire threatened hundreds of homes and could spread to as many as 1,500 acres before being brought under control, Battalion Chief Paul Van Gerwen said. Nearly 800 firefighters were at the scene Thursday morning.

The Santa Cruz fire flared just two weeks after another blaze two miles away scorched about 61/2 square miles and destroyed at least three dozen homes.

Jeanne Colbus, 60, said she and her 94-year-old mother quickly left their home after she saw smoke in the hills and received a call ordering them to evacuate.

“I was gardening and I looked up and saw that big column of smoke,” said Colbus, who planned to spend the night at an emergency shelter at a middle school in Felton, several miles from the blaze. “I’m scared. We don’t have fire insurance for one thing. A lot of our things are irreplaceable.”

In Butte County, several hundred homes were evacuated ahead of a fast-growing wildfire near Chico, about 90 miles north of Sacramento. The blaze, which started around noon, had grown to 6,000 acres and threatened about 1,650 structures. It was only about 10 percent contained Thursday morning.

“We’ve had very active winds, low humidity and high heat. As you know, that’s a recipe for disaster,” said Joshpae White, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Those weather conditions also prevailed throughout the rest of Northern California, where hundreds of firefighters were deployed on fire lines from the North Coast wine country to the Central Valley.

The state’s largest blaze, in the Los Padres National Forest, had grown to 16,905 acres and was only 16 percent contained.

Three firefighters were burned near Lincoln, about 25 miles northeast of Sacramento, when they were caught in a 65-acre grass fire burning in a dry rice field. Two of them had moderate to severe burns to their faces and arms, while the third was treated for minor facial burns.

The extreme fire danger was expected to last through Thursday, with temperatures hitting 100 degrees throughout the Central Valley. Felix Garcia, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento, said winds are expected to decrease, which would help the firefighting efforts.

In Colorado, a federal fire management team was expected to arrive Thursday to coordinate more than 50 firefighters battling a lightning-sparked blaze at a remote U.S. Army training site about 160 miles south of Denver. The fire had burned about 20,000 acres, or about 31 square miles, inside Fort Carson’s Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site, spokeswoman Karen Linne said.

Across the country in North Carolina, fire officials said air quality from Raleigh to Winston-Salem could be affected Thursday by smoke from a wildfire burning in and around the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

About 50 homes were ordered evacuated because of the 62-square-mile wildfire, officials said. The fire, sparked June 1 by a lightning strike, is about 40 percent contained, officials said.

Associated Press writers Don Thompson and Samantha Young in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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