LOWER LAKE, Calif. – A wind-whipped wildfire roared through a Northern California town threatened by a devastating blaze a year ago, wiping out more than 100 homes and businesses and forcing thousands of people to flee, authorities said Monday.
The fire seemed calm Sunday before gusts kicked up the flames that tore through neighborhoods in Lower Lake, a rural town about 90 miles north of San Francisco, officials said. No one was injured, but it reached Main Street and burned the post office, a winery, an antiques store, a historic firehouse and the Habitat for Humanity office.
"This fire roared through the city like a wave of water — it was a wave of fire that came through here," said Lt. Doug Pittman, a Marin County sheriff's spokesman working on behalf of the forestry department.
The blaze was one of 11 large wildfires in the state, where high temperatures and parched conditions brought on by a five-year drought raised the fire danger. In central California, a day-old wildfire burned 20 structures and threatened 150 homes.
Last September, one of California's most destructive wildfires ravaged a series of small towns just a half-hour from Lower Lake, whose residents were forced to evacuate. It killed four people, left a fifth missing and destroyed more than 1,300 homes in nearby communities.
The new fire struck in the heart in Lower Lake, a town of about 1,300 that draws working-class families and retirees with housing prices lower than the San Francisco Bay Area. It broke out Saturday afternoon and exploded to nearly 5 square miles as it fed on bone-dry vegetation.
Besides the wind, 100-degree heat hindered firefighters struggling to get a handle on the largely out-of-control blaze.
Residents who thought conditions were calm earlier Sunday went on errands in town and came back to towering flames and smoke. Some used hoses or water from their pools to try to protect their houses.
Mary and Bobby Henderson had only minutes to gather belongings before evacuating with their three young daughters and a son. She was sure to grab a prepacked tote bag of another son's favorite childhood books, his baby blanket and other important keepsakes. Seth, 18, took his own life last year.
"We had less than 10 minutes from the time we saw flames coming toward us to the time we were pulling out of driveway," the 45-year-old mother said Monday through tears. "I just grabbed the bag with some of his favorite things."
The family is safe, as are their 16 goats and several chickens. They are not sure about their three-bedroom house, whose space allowed them to adopt their daughters, 2-year-old Ally Rose, 3-year-old and 5-year-old Elly Marie, last year.
"It was because of moving into that house that we were able to get our girls," Mary Henderson said. The family is staying with friends.
At least 175 structures were destroyed. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant said more than 100 homes burned but didn't have the exact breakdown of residences, businesses and other buildings lost. At least 1,500 more structures were threatened.
The Habitat for Humanity office that burned was raising money to help rebuild homes in nearby communities torched by last year's wildfire.
"Emotions are still incredibly raw from the Valley Fire," state Sen. Mike McGuire said of the older blaze. "I don't think any of us thought we'd be back where we are tonight."
In central California, similar conditions led the wildfire near Lake Nacimiento, about 180 miles northwest of Los Angeles, to explode from 2 to nearly 7 square miles Sunday, Cal Fire spokesman Bennet Milloy said. The blaze shifted north toward the lake, leading authorities to evacuate some residents by boat. It is partially contained.
In Southern California, forecasters warned of high fire danger due to a heat wave and gusty winds.
In Nevada, authorities say a Forest Service firefighter has died after being hit by a tree while battling a wildfire there.
Federal officials say 26-year-old Justin Beebe of Vermont was killed when the tree fell on him Saturday afternoon while his crew battled the blaze in the eastern part of the state.