WEED, Calif. – Fire crews aided by calmer winds and aircraft knocked down a wildfire Tuesday that damaged or destroyed 100 homes and a church and forced more than 1,000 people to flee a small town near the Oregon border.
As crews put out remaining embers, the people of Weed wandered through scorched neighborhoods covered in pink fire retardant had been dropped by firefighting airplanes.
Some homes were burned to the ground, with only chimneys left standing. Broken water pipes spurted over the blackened landscape. The remnants of the Holy Family Catholic Church were still smoking, marked by twisted metal girders lying on the ground.
The fast-moving blaze, which began Monday, was among nearly a dozen wildfires burning in California that have been exacerbated by the state's third straight year of drought. The tinder-dry conditions have sent firefighters scrambling from blaze to blaze, almost nonstop.
Two fires, one near Yosemite National Park in central California and another east of Sacramento, also led hundreds of people to evacuate their homes.
In Weed, residents said they had just minutes before the flames engulfed them. Dan Linville and his son were sitting in their living room when they smelled smoke. Looking outside, they saw a black cloud coming over the hills.
A mere 10 minutes later, the wildfire driven by fierce winds raced through their neighborhood, missing them by three houses and torching a roof across the street.
No deaths or injuries were reported, but the Linvilles figure a quarter of the town burned.
"It's horrible," said Linville, 80. "I've got tears in my heart for all these people that I know who lost their homes."
Fire crews had a handle on the 375-acre fire Tuesday morning after it showed little growth overnight. It was 20 percent contained.
This scenic town of nearly 3,000 near the base of Mount Shasta in the Cascade Mountains had been under siege from the blaze. The fire erupted south of Weed, and winds gusting up to 40 mph pushed it into town, where flames mowed through a hillside neighborhood.
The town sawmill also caught fire.
"It ran basically right through the east side of town. At the peak, essentially the entire town was evacuated," state fire spokesman Robert Foxworthy said.
Blowing embers started fires as much as a half-mile ahead of the fire front, and 1,500 to 2,000 people were told to evacuate, said Allison Giannini, spokeswoman for the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department.
The winds began to ease late in the day, and the fire's pace slowed. Winds were expected to be calmer on Tuesday.
When the fire alarm went off at Weed High School, students thought they were shuffling to the campus baseball field for a fire drill.
"We eventually got out there and saw a big cloud of smoke," freshman Violet Carter said. "That whole hill was on fire."
Randy Coates, who rushed to pick up his daughter when the high school was evacuated, said he saw the town's Catholic and Presbyterian churches, houses and backyards on fire. Driving by a wood mill, he saw piles of wood chips burning.
Weed, historically a lumber town, was named after the founder of a mill, Abner Weed, who "discovered that the area's strong winds were helpful in drying lumber," according to the town's website.
Meanwhile, firefighters were trying to gain better access to two raging wildfires that broke out Sunday, including one in central California that destroyed 61 structures — 33 of them homes.
The fire near a foothill community south of an entrance to Yosemite National Park burned 320 acres, and was 40 percent contained. About 600 residents from 200 homes remained evacuated, Madera County sheriff's spokeswoman Erica Stuart said.
The fire started off a road outside of Oakhurst, near Yosemite, and spread to Bass Lake, a popular year-round destination. Its cause was under investigation.
The blaze is the latest to hit the area, which is still reeling from another fire near downtown Oakhurst that destroyed eight structures earlier this summer.
"I really feel for this community, which has already been through a lot," state fire spokesman Dennis Mathisen said. "This is yet another example of how the damaging effect of this drought has impacted California."
Farther north, a wildfire about 60 miles east of Sacramento forced the evacuation of 133 homes. El Dorado County sheriff's officials said residents of an additional 406 homes were being told to prepare to flee.
More than 1,500 firefighters battled the blaze, which started in a remote area Saturday but exploded Sunday when it reached a canyon of thick, dry brush. It grew rapidly and by Tuesday morning had burned through more than 18 square miles. It was only 5 percent contained.
Associated Press writers Terry Collins in San Francisco and Robert Jablon and Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.