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Racing wildfire engulfs homes in California town

September 17, 2014

WEED, California (AP) — Fire crews aided by calmer winds and aircraft knocked down a wildfire Tuesday that damaged or destroyed 150 homes, the saw mill and a church and forced more than 1,000 people to flee a small town.

Two other 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, as crews put out remaining embers, residents 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.

The cause of the Weed fire is still under investigation. Winds gusting up to 40 mph (64 kph) pushed the flames into town, where they quickly chewed through a hillside neighborhood.

“It went through here so fast it was unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like this,” Jim Taylor, a retired butcher who has lived in the town for 30 years said Tuesday. “I’m not a real religious person, but somebody was looking out for me.”

Fire crews had a handle on the 375-acre (150-hectare) 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.

Blowing embers started fires as much as a half-mile (800 meters) 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.

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 (129 hectares), 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.

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