Hell and high wa­ter

North­ern Cal­i­for­nia is be­sieged again

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - WORLD -

Five months ago, it was fears over flood­ing. Now it’s flames.

When Chuck Wilsey was or­dered to flee over the week­end as a wild­fire roared near his ranch home in Oroville, he was ready. He started keep­ing his truck and camper loaded with sup­plies back in Fe­bru­ary, when some of the heav­i­est win­ter rains on record in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia nearly led to cat­a­strophic flood­ing be­low the na­tion’s tallest dam.

“Fire and flood so close to­gether,’’ he mar­velled on Mon­day at a Red Cross shel­ter. “We just try to stay pre­pared,’’

Wilsey, 53, and his fam­ily were among about 4,000 peo­ple evac­u­ated as flames raced through grassy foothills in the Sierra Ne­vada, about 97 kilo­me­tres north of Sacra­mento. Sher­iff’s deputies drove through neigh­bour­hoods an­nounc­ing evac­u­a­tion or­ders over loud­speak­ers.

Crews were mak­ing progress against that fire and dozens of oth­ers across Cal­i­for­nia, Colorado, Ari­zona and New Mex­ico, and into Canada.

Au­thor­i­ties were hope­ful some Oroville evac­uees would be able to re­turn Mon­day as winds di­min­ished and fire­fight­ers work­ing in rugged ter­rain ex­tended con­tain­ment lines.

Wilsey said he be­lieved his home was still stand­ing be­cause crews were able to keep flames from jump­ing a key moun­tain road.

His daugh­ter, Krys­tle Cham­bers, who lives on the same prop­erty, said the one-two punch of floods and fires was tak­ing its toll.

“It’s hard, it’s rough,’’ she said. “Way too many hits. First it’s this side of town, then the other side of town. It al­most makes you want to move.’’

The blaze burned nearly 23 square kilo­me­tres of grass, in­jured four fire­fight­ers and de­stroyed at least 17 struc­tures. It was 35 per cent con­tained.

The area burn­ing is south­east of Oroville, near where 200,000 res­i­dents down­stream from the 770-foot-high Oroville Dam were briefly evac­u­ated in Fe­bru­ary when the struc­ture’s spill­ways be­gan crum­bling. Wilsey did not have to leave his home that time.

The fire evac­u­a­tion zone is just a few miles from the val­ley ar­eas that were or­dered cleared out dur­ing the win­ter del­uge.

Pam Ded­itch, who is run­ning the shel­ter where Wilsey and his fam­ily were hud­dled, also man­aged a shel­ter dur­ing the win­ter drench­ing.

“If it’s not one thing, it’s the other,’’ she said with a laugh. “We’re used to this. We’re re­silient. We’re strong. We get fires and we get flood­ing.’’

In South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, at least 3,500 peo­ple re­mained out of their homes as a pair of fires raged at dif­fer­ent ends of Santa Bar­bara County. The larger of the two charred more than 116 square kilo­me­tres of dry brush and threat­ened more than 130 ru­ral homes. It was 15 per cent con­tained.

The fires broke out amid a blis­ter­ing week­end heat wave that top­pled tem­per­a­ture records. Slightly cooler weather is ex­pected to give crews a break in the com­ing days.

Cal­i­for­nia of­fi­cials said the ex­traor­di­nar­ily wet win­ter caused thick spring blooms that are now dried out and burn­ing, mak­ing for un­pre­dictable fire be­hav­iour.

“You see rapid fire growth in a lot of these fires, larger acreage con­sump­tion, which makes it very dif­fi­cult to fire­fight­ers to fight,’’ said Bennet Mil­loy, spokesman for the Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion.

In Colorado, crews were wind­ing down the fight against a wild­fire that tem­po­rar­ily forced the evac­u­a­tion of hun­dreds of peo­ple near the re­sort town of Breck­en­ridge. Fire­fight­ers built con­tain­ment lines around at least 85 per cent of the blaze.

AP PHOTO

This photo pro­vided by KEYT-TV shows smoke loom­ing above Broad­cast Peak be­hind a fire break along a ridge line east of Cachuma Lake in Santa Bar­bara County, Calif., Sun­day. Wild­fires bar­reled across the bak­ing land­scape of the western U.S. and Canada, de­stroy­ing a smat­ter­ing of homes, forc­ing thou­sands to flee and tem­po­rar­ily trap­ping chil­dren and coun­sel­lors at a camp­ground.

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