Hell and high water
Northern California is besieged again
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.
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.