Two people have died in a wildfire that ripped through a Northern California town, a local official has said, as firefighters in the far north of the state on Sunday battled blazes that forced evacuations and destroyed dozens of homes.
“There’s no easy way of putting it,” said Siskiyou county sheriff Jeremiah LaRue as he shared the news of the fatalities on Sunday afternoon during a community meeting held at an elementary school north of the rural community of Weed. He did not immediately provide names or other details including age or gender of the two people who died.
Both LaRue and other officials said it was not clear when people would be allowed back into their homes, and when power would be restored for the people still without it.
About 1,000 people were still under evacuation orders on Sunday as firefighters worked to contain the blaze that ran out of control at the start of the holiday weekend.
Meanwhile, the fire’s footprint hadn’t expanded since Saturday morning, though the nearby Mountain Fire grew in size on Sunday, officials said.
Authorities said winds, low humidity and dry vegetation would pose challenges to crews working to contain two fires that sparked on Friday and quickly burned through tinder-dry grass. The Mill fire rapidly overtook a neighborhood on the edge of the small city of Weed, forcing residents to flee immediately.
“Both fires are still very dangerous,” Dan McNamara, with the state firefighting agency Cal Fire, warned crews at a briefing on Sunday morning, advising them to beware of heat and hydration. “There are a lot of hidden and unknown hazards there, so please keep your head on a swivel.”
Hundreds of firefighters from across the state were helping to battle the blazes in the rural region near the Oregon border. They had achieved about 25% containment on the Mill fire, which had burned through nearly 7 sq miles in Siskiyou county. The blaze had destroyed 50 structures, according to Cal Fire, and injured three people. Two were brought to a local hospital and one was transferred to UC Davis Medical Center, which has a burn unit.
Crews had contained 5% of the Mountain fire, which was at about 10 square miles. More than 1,300 people were under evacuation in the areas affected by the fires. Temperatures in Weed could climb as high as 103F (39C) in the coming days.
Fires are a part of life in this region of California but recent years have been particularly challenging as the state faces a historic drought and the climate crisis makes the American west hotter and drier. The year’s largest blaze so far, the McKinney fire, killed four in Siskiyou county, including a veteran fire lookout, and destroyed nearly 200 buildings.
Weed, a city of 2,600 just off Interstate Five, has seen three major fires in eight years. Residents have become all too familiar with the smoke, ash and flames that mean they must prepare to flee at a moment’s notice.
“Whenever this happens, I get really bad,” Judy Christenson, 63, told the Associated Press from a car at an evacuation center, with her cat. “I can’t think straight.”
The fires have worsened, said Bob West, a lifelong resident who co-owns a local coffee and sandwich shop and has had to evacuate twice for a fire.
“It’s way worse than it used to be,” he said. “It affects our community because people leave because they don’t want to rebuild.”
California is in the midst of a severe heatwave that is bringing days of triple-digit temperatures to large swaths of the state.
“Interior northern California is now heading for a truly dangerous, searing heatwave. All-time September records are now all but guaranteed in the Central Valley,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, said on Twitter.
The heat would make outdoor work dangerous, Swain said, including for firefighting crews battling blazes while carrying heavy gear. Earlier this week, seven firefighters were sent to hospital after suffering heat injuries while working on the Route fire in southern California.
Thomas Ewald, the Los Angeles county fire department deputy chief, said then that more heat emergencies were expected.
“Wearing heavy firefighting gear, carrying packs, dragging hose, swinging tools, the folks out there are just taking a beating,” he said.