Firefighters Face Strong Winds in Battling Calif. Wildfire

Firefighters were bracing Wednesday for high winds as they work to control a series of wind-driven fires that have destroyed dozens of homes and burned thousands of acres across a wide swath of Northern California.

The fires are concentrated in areas north and east of the state capital, while separate blazes are burning near the coast in Monterey and Sonoma counties.

In Palermo, a town of about 5,000 residents about 60 miles north of Sacramento, a 1,600-acre wildfire destroyed 21 homes and about 28 other structures and 99 vehicles, said Kevin Colburn, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It was about 60 percent contained Wednesday morning, but 275 homes remained threatened, he said.

"We're concerned if the winds get up again it could blow something across the line," Colburn said of the containment lines firefighters have established to control the fire.

The Butte County community south of Oroville was evacuated temporarily Tuesday while at least 350 firefighters fought to protect homes.

The fire had moved through the town and into more rural areas by early evening. Some residents were allowed to return to their homes as the fire danger passed, Colburn said.

About 12 residents spent the night at an evacuation center established at Oroville's Church of the Nazarene, church secretary Tina Brandt said.

In a blaze just south of Sacramento, a fire captain was hospitalized with severe burns after a grass fire unexpectedly changed direction and became more intense.

Sacramento Metro Fire Department Capt. Jeff Lynch said the captain was scheduled for surgery Wednesday after spending the night at the University of California, Davis Regional Burn Center in Sacramento with third-degree burns to his hands and second-degree burns to his arms.

Second-degree burns cause blistering or peeling of the skin, while third-degree burns include skin charring.

The captain, a 21-year-veteran of the department, and two members of his engine crew were protecting a mobile home from the 6,400-acre grass fire in a rural area south of Sacramento. The captain was caught when the wind and flames suddenly shifted direction. The two crew members were able to get inside the cab and escaped injury, Lynch said.

Two homes were burned. The fire's progress was stopped late Tuesday, but about 70 firefighters were working Wednesday to keep it under control, Lynch said.

"We have a control line around the burn now, but we still have very volatile situation," Lynch said. "We have high wind, low humidity, higher temps than yesterday and dry grassland."

Grass, brush and trees are in matchstick condition across California after the driest March, April and May on record.

In addition, a steady north wind was gusting through California's Central Valley, said Jason Clapp, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento. He said the relative humidity was 15 percent and could drop to single digits.

Firefighters backed by helicopters and air tankers hoped to make progress once the wind died and temperatures cooled Tuesday evening. But winds were expected to flare again Wednesday and Thursday.

Other fires burning in Northern California on Wednesday included:

— A 860-acre fire near Cloverdale in Sonoma County that was 80 percent contained.

— A 1,200-acre fire near Highway 132 and Don Pedro Reservoir in Tuolumne County that was 30 percent contained.

— A 4,200 acre fire in the Los Padres National Forest in Monterey County that was 10 percent contained. About 15 summer cabins in the Santa Lucia Tract remain evacuated as a precaution.

— A 3,300-acre fire about 10 miles north of Fresno in Madera County that was 100 percent contained.

The unusually severe and early fire season began with a wildfire last month that scorched more than 4,200 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It destroyed at least three dozen homes between Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties, about 15 miles south of San Jose.