ANGELS CAMP, Calif. (AP) — Thousands of people rushed to escape a massive wildfire charging across the tinder-dry Sierra Nevada foothills and another out-of-control fire that broke out in Northern California on Saturday, sending four firefighters to the hospital with second-degree burns.
The fire began in Lake County, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, and grew to about 15 square miles (or 10,000 acres) in just a few hours, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.
The firefighters, all members of a helicopter crew, were airlifted to a hospital burn unit, where they were listed in stable condition, department spokesman Daniel Berlant said.
The fire forced the evacuation of two towns as well as residents along a 35-mile stretch of State Route 29.
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To the east, a blood-red sun pushed through a choking fog of smoke and ash that turned California’s grassy, tree-studded Gold Country an eerie white. Away from the burned-out cars and smoldering remains of homes, Annette Stout and other residents who fled the flames rested at evacuation centers.
Stout was ordered from her house Friday afternoon, and for the first time since her husband’s death in March, she drove their recreational vehicle to safety in Angels Camp, a quaint town made famous by Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Tale of the Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
“I grabbed my cats, their carriers, important papers, my husband death’s certificate and his ashes,” said Stout, who lives in the community of Hathaway Pines.
Despite the outpouring of help at the center set up at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds, she didn’t sleep well. “We knew we were safe here, but (I was) worrying about the house, worrying about those who didn’t leave,” she said.
The blaze ignited about 70 miles southeast of Sacramento on Wednesday and exploded to more than 101 square miles amid triple-digit temperatures and land parched from several years of drought. Crews increased containment to 15 percent despite a thick layer of smoke that kept air tankers and helicopters from flying Saturday.
Firefighters on the ground were hampered by rugged, hard-to-access terrain. With very little wind, the fires were driven by bone-dry brush and timber.
“We’re in a Catch-22, because without wind the smoke won’t lift,” said Mike Mohler, a Cal Fire spokesman. “We needed the aircraft today.”
The fire destroyed 86 homes, 51 outbuildings and was threatening about 6,400 more.
At the fairgrounds, Joe Thomas rested on a folded tent near his pickup truck, one of dozens of parked cars and RVs. He described what he could save from the flames — and what he couldn’t.
“I lost my business — it’s all burned up — my shop, my house, 28 years of living,” said Thomas, who lives near the community of Mountain Ranch. “I got to start all over. It’s depressing.”
Thomas, who runs a tractor dealership and repair business, said he and his wife grabbed papers, his work computer, photos and their four dogs. But they left a goat, five ducks, six rabbits and more than 30 chickens behind.
“I turned the pens open and turned them lose. I just couldn’t gather them up,” he said. “All we want to do is go home. It’s miserable.”
Michelle Griffiths checked on livestock after spending much of the night rescuing her neighbors’ four horses and seven cats in the community of Mountain Ranch.
“People were running for their lives two nights ago,” which is when her neighbors left their house and livestock for a motel, Griffiths said.
“Fortunately, our house is still standing” and so is the neighbors’, she said.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, helping free up funding and resources in the firefight. More than 3,850 firefighters were assigned to the blaze, and more expected to arrive throughout the day. Its cause is under investigation.
Meanwhile, new evacuation orders were issued Saturday for the largest wildfire in the state, threatening to sweep through an ancient grove of Giant Sequoia trees. The fire, sparked by lightning on July 31, has charred 201 square miles, according to the latest fire map released by the U.S. Forest Service.
In a fight to save the trees, firefighters cleared brush around the Grant Grove and set prescribed burns to keep the flames from overrunning it. By Saturday, the threat lessened when it became clear the backfiring and monitoring efforts helped protect the treasured trees, the Fresno Bee reported.
The grove is named for the towering General Grant tree that stands 268 feet tall. There are dozens of Sequoia groves in the Sierra Nevada, and some trees are 3,000 years old.
This story has been corrected to show the fire began Wednesday, not Tuesday.