COLEVILLE, Calif. – Winds gusting up to 65 mph fanned a Sierra wildfire that forced the evacuation Tuesday of up to 200 people near the California-Nevada line and the closure of a 40-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 395.
With airtankers grounded in the sustained winds of 40 mph, the fire tripled in size from an estimated 200 acres Tuesday morning to more than 600 acres along the Sierra's eastern front by late afternoon, said Mark Struble, a spokesman for the Sierra Front Interagency Fire Dispatch Center.
About 50 homes in Mono County between Coleville and Walker were immediately threatened and another 150 structures were in the area of the fire, he said.
"It is growing. We don't know exactly what direction it is heading," Struble told The Associated Press.
"The winds are really swirling. Even (overnight) the forecast is for sustained winds of 20 to 35 mph with gusts to 55 mph," he said.
No damage to homes or injuries had been reported but the fire did burn over some equipment at a temporary firefighter camp behind Coleville High School, including a refrigerated storage until and several portable toilets, Struble said.
More than 200 firefighters were battling the fire along with at least 14 fire engines, three water tenders and a bulldozer, Struble said.
Local commanders put orders in for a Type I federal incident team that will bring hundreds more firefighters to the scene but that could take more than a day, he said.
Authorities evacuated the grade school and the high school in Coleville about 8 miles south of the Nevada line Tuesday morning as well as several neighborhoods with as many as 200 residents over a 5-mile stretch from Coleville south to the northwest edge of Walker.
"They have been safely evacuated," Struble said.
In addition to fueling the fire through scrub pines, sagebrush and juniper, the high winds prevented any attack on the flames from the air.
"You can't really put a safely loaded airtanker or helicopter up in wind gusts to 50 mph. And even if you could, the drop would go blowing off away from the flames. So all you really are doing is putting a crew at risk," Struble said.
Walker is the town where a C-130A airtanker on contract to fight fires for the U.S. Forest Service crashed while attacking a blaze on June 17, 2002, killing all three crew members.
"It is actually very close to where that airtanker went down," Struble said.
On the bright side, some rain was included in the forecast overnight.
"It would be nice if we could get some rain on it," Struble said. "The fire jumped over Highway 395 and there are a lot of irrigated fields there so maybe that will help too."
The California Highway Patrol closed U.S. Highway 395 just before noon from Holbrook Junction in Nevada at State Route 208 south to California State Route 182 in Bridgeport.
The high winds rekindled the fire, named the Larson Fire, which had been smoldering since lightning started it on Friday near Coleville High School.
At Carson City, Nev., about 45 miles to the north, the winds gusting up to 33 mph forced the closure of a city street about 45 miles to the north in Carson City, Nev., and left the sheriff's office and courthouse without power when tree limbs broke off onto a power line.