Mill Fire destroys homes, triggers widespread evacuations

WEED – Fueled by gusty winds and sweltering temperatures, the fast-moving plant fire gave an ominous start to a brutally hot Labor Day weekend in Northern California as it tore through neighborhoods in Siskiyou County, claiming dozens of homes, causing multiple injuries and sending thousands fleeing for their lives.

The disastrous inferno – believed to have started around a local lumber factory in Weed on Friday – jumped to 3,921 acres with just 20% containment on Saturday, punctuating a relatively quiet wildfire season with some of the scariest conflagrations of the year.

On Saturday afternoon, the immediate threat appeared to have eased somewhat, with some evacuation orders downgraded to warnings and nearly 4,000 firefighters stopping the fast-moving blaze from causing further destruction.

But the weather for the rest of this weekend in Siskiyou County will not be forgiving, with projected highs Sunday of 92 degrees with gusty winds expected to climb to 20 miles per hour. And conditions across the region can only continue to deteriorate, with the heat wave expected to peak on Monday and Tuesday and persist through the end of the week.

“Simply put, fire weather will be elevated across much of Northern California given the hot, dry conditions,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Matt Mehle. “The biggest contributor to fire and its spread is the wind. These wind speeds could make the difference.

A few miles north of Weed, a second blaze, the Mountain Fire, had burned nearly 3,400 acres since Friday in the small community of Gazelle and prompted hundreds more evacuations.

At least two people were injured in the mill fire and transported to medical centers for treatment.

On Saturday, dozens of homes, reduced to rubble by the intensity of the flames, smoldered under a thick haze of smoke on either side of Highway 97 north of downtown Weed.

Abandoned cars and vans remained strewn about, sitting on bare rims with their tires burned – a sign of how quickly wildfires can turn destructive in scorching, windy conditions, which were expected to continue through Sunday.

“I lost my house, my dogs, everything except what I had,” said Dave Rodgers, 59, who was about to take a shower on Friday when he saw smoke coming out of his window. bathroom.

WEED, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 3: Dave Rodgers, 59, tours the ruins of his home and neighborhood in Weed, Calif., on Saturday morning, September 3, 2022, after it was destroyed in yesterday’s fire. He lost everything, including two of his dogs. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Rodgers was on his porch when he noticed the sawmill a quarter mile south was on fire. The flames were making their way over the hill, with sparks and ash descending on his neighborhood of Lincoln Heights, a historically black enclave: “It happened all of a sudden,” he said.

A retired Weed town worker and longtime resident, he headed for the fire when he saw it coming, making sure an elderly neighbor who lived up the hill evacuated and alerted a another, an 80-year-old woman, to get ready to leave.

He then rushed home to collect his adopted Chihuahuas, TT and Xena, but fire erupted upon his arrival and obscured his vision, preventing him from entering the door.

By the time he was back on the hill, his neighbor’s garage and patio were already on fire. And as they fled the neighborhood, “flames engulfed the truck and she started screaming.” The couple made it out alive.

WEED, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 2: The Mountain Fire burns late Friday evening, September 2, 2022, in the forest west of Weed, California, where another fire, the Mill Fire, tore through the town earlier, destroying dozens of houses.  (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
WEED, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 2: The Mountain Fire burns late Friday evening, September 2, 2022, in the forest west of Weed, California, where another fire, the Mill Fire, tore through the town earlier, destroying dozens of houses. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

A state emergency official said Saturday that at least 50 structures were destroyed in the blaze, and the number is expected to rise. The Mill and Mountain Fires are the latest of about 80 wildfires currently burning across California, and the fire season is just heading into what are traditionally its most dangerous weeks.

“We know that the fire in the town of Weed caused civilian injuries and power outages, impacted critical infrastructure, destroyed homes and of course caused the evacuation of thousands of people,” Mark said. Ghilarducci, director of the California governor’s emergency office. The services said at a press conference on Saturday.

The blaze also closed a number of local roads and parts of U.S. Highway 97, which stretches from Weed north to Washington.

Cal Fire is investigating the cause of the factory fire, but several Weed residents said it appeared to have started in or near a sawmill owned by a major lumber manufacturing company, Roseburg Forest Products, right next to the city fire department and a group of residences, as well as a local elementary school.

WEED, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 3: A tangled pile of twisted metal is all that remains Saturday morning, September 3, 2022, of a Roseburg Forest Products building destroyed in yesterday's fire in Weed, Calif. (Karl Mondon/ Bay Area News Group)
WEED, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 3: A tangled pile of twisted metal is all that remains Saturday morning, September 3, 2022, of a Roseburg Forest Products building destroyed yesterday in a mill fire in Weed, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
WEED, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 3: The Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Weed, Calif., is a scene of devastation, Saturday, September 3, 2022, after being destroyed in yesterday's Miil Fire.  (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
WEED, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 3: The Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Weed, Calif., is a scene of devastation, Saturday, September 3, 2022, after being destroyed in yesterday’s Miil Fire. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

The blaze also burned in the Lake Shastina community north of Weed, with local fire department chief Steven Pappas saying in a statement on Saturday that the blaze had leveled many homes.

“Today is a very sad day for our community, Pappas said. “A lot of people are wondering when they will be able to return to an evacuated area. The entire community is still without power, so please plan accordingly.

Despite the mill fire spreading rapidly, fire crews prevented the flames from reaching the southern part of Weed, which is home to a number of downtown businesses.

On Saturday morning, Rachel Thomas was driving around the edge of her neighborhood in Weed – surrounded by police tape – hoping to spot her dogs Chopper and Anika, who were in the house when the fire broke out.

She and her 15-year-old son, Keeshan Barton, lost virtually all of their possessions when flames destroyed their 14-year-old rented home in Lincoln Heights. Thomas, 42, held out hope that firefighters had arrived at the house before she burned down and opened a door, and ‘maybe the dogs could have gotten out’, she said .

WEED, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 3: Rachel Thomas returns to view the ruins of her home in Weed, California on Saturday morning, September 3, 2022, after it was destroyed by the mill fire.  She and her son are safe but they have lost everything, including their pets.  (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
WEED, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 3: Rachel Thomas returns to view the ruins of her home in Weed, California on Saturday morning, September 3, 2022, after it was destroyed by the mill fire. She and her son are safe but they have lost everything, including their pets. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

She has lived in Weed for 20 years, she said, and will now look for a new home in the area – as will many others whose homes have been burned down. But housing, she said, “was already scarce”.

As residents fled, Attorney General Rob Bonta warned businesses not to raise prices for those escaping the area on emergency supplies like medical aid, food and gasoline.

Near Lincoln Heights, Yvette Hoy left with her husband on Friday to run some errands – no fire in sight – and returned 45 minutes later to find their property on fire, with flames jumping her yard towards the back of the house .

The couple owns hundreds of cattle and dozens of sheep, which escaped the fire with their three horses. But they lost a tractor and a hay baler, along with all the hay she had spent the summer cutting to feed the cattle over the coming winter months.

Gone is also their home and a lifetime of irreplaceable memories.

“The fireplace wasn’t even standing,” she said. “You leave the house with the clothes on your back and that’s all you have – in 45 minutes. How’s that? You see it on TV, but you never think it’s going to get you to arrive.

Writer Eliyahu Kamisher contributed to this report.

WEED, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 3: A tree continues to burn Saturday morning, September 3, 2022, near Shastina Lake in Weed, Calif., after the factory fire ripped through the area burning nearly 4,000 acres.  (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
WEED, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 3: A tree continues to burn Saturday morning, September 3, 2022, near Shastina Lake in Weed, Calif., after the factory fire ripped through the area burning nearly 4,000 acres. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)