BURNEY, Calif. – Two wildfires that burned or threatened hundreds of homes in Northern California were menacing a small town as they plowed through more than 100 square miles of drought-stricken brush, and Tuesday brought a chance of thunderstorms and lightning that could spark new blazes, officials said.
The Eiler Fire that destroyed eight homes in recent days continued to threaten around 700, and some evacuations remained in force around the town of Burney in Shasta County.
The town of about 3,000 was watching and waiting as ash rained down and smoke rose only about 4 miles away. Residents were advised that they should be prepared if they have to flee the blaze, which was only 10 percent contained late Monday night.
Nate Helle, manager of the Alpine Drive Inn in Burney, was still serving meals to customers late Monday morning, including hungry firefighters.
The presence of more than 1,000 firefighters, some from as far away as Montana, helped ease residents' anxiety, he told the Redding Record Searchlight (http://bit.ly/1o9vYXT).
"They are not in such a panic," he said.
A day earlier, the fires prompted officials at Mayer Memorial Hospital to evacuate their 49-bed annex for patients with dementia and other conditions requiring skilled nursing. The patients were transferred to a hospital in Redding, about 55 miles away.
The Eiler and the Bald Fire, which was only 20 percent corralled, began within a day of each other in Lassen National Forest and expanded ferociously through drought-killed or weakened trees and brush.
Both were sparked by lightning. Firefighters were helped by slightly cooler, more humid weather but it came at a cost — an increasing chance of thunderstorms that could bring erratic winds and lightning, fire forecasts said.
The summer wildfires weren't entirely unexpected. Fire officials had been warning of dangerous conditions because of the drought.
"We have just been on edge all year," Kathy Scott of nearby Fall River Mills told the Record Searchlight. "We've been thinking about this and thinking about this."
But the speed and fury of the Eiler fire was disconcerting and terrifying, some refugees said Monday at a shelter set up at a local school.
"It has a mind of its own; it's not following protocol," said Dennis Hoffman, who left the community of Cassel last week as flames roared through forests on either side of his home.
"Trees were just exploding," he said. "It was like a big monster — just unbelievable, how bad it was."
The two wildfires were among about a dozen that had burned some 209 square miles across the state and that more than 7,500 federal and state firefighters battled, state fire spokeswoman Capt. Amy Head said. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency on Saturday, saying the circumstances and magnitude of the wildfires were beyond the control of any single local government and required the combined forces of regions to combat.
California is 35 percent above average in the number of fires it's seen so far this year, state fire spokesman Dennis Mathisen said Sunday. The state is also 44 percent above average in the amount of land burned.
Meanwhile, a major wildfire in the Siskiyou Mountains along the Oregon-California border slowed as temperatures cooled, but it still jeopardized 270 residences after burning six scattered rural homes.
Firefighters on Monday got a handle on the blaze 15 miles east of Ashland that scorched 72 square miles — 57 of them in Oregon and the rest in California. Some evacuation warnings remained in force.
Overall, nine large fires were burning across 118 square miles of forest and rangeland in Oregon, most of them east of the Cascade Range. Three of them were nearly fully contained.
In Washington state, a wind-whipped blaze destroyed about a dozen structures and prompted an evacuation notice for about 80 homes in Kittitas County. Other residents have been told to be ready to leave, said Jill Beedle, a spokeswoman for the Kittitas County Emergency Operations Center.
It's unknown if the structures that burned were full-time residences, summer cabins or outbuildings.
Associated Press photographer Marico Jose Sanchez reported from Burney, Calif. Writers Terry Collins and Lisa Leff reported from San Francisco and Jeff Barnard from Grants Pass, Ore., also contributed to this report.