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Lumber town takes stock after wind-driven wildfire

September 17, 2014

WEED, California (AP) — The inferno that swirled through the California lumber town of Weed moved so quickly all people could do was flee.

In just a few hours, wind-driven flames destroyed or damaged 150 structures, a saw mill and a church. At times, the fire moved so fast that residents had only a few minutes to get out of the way.

On Tuesday, the “Weed Like To Welcome You” town sign still stood, but nothing else was normal as stunned residents assessed the damage, took stock of what they lost and gave thanks for what was saved.

“At the peak, essentially the entire town was evacuated,” state fire spokesman Robert Foxworthy said.

Disastrous as the fire was for the community of 3,000 people, daybreak brought gratitude and relief that there were no reports of death or even serious injuries.

The intense blaze erupted Monday south of Weed. Elsewhere in the state, hundreds of firefighters battled about a dozen other persistent blazes.

Winds gusting up to 40 mph (64 kph) pushed the flames into town, where they quickly chewed through a hillside neighborhood. Officials said a significant number of the structures burned were houses; three firefighters lost their homes in the blaze. The cause is still under investigation.

“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.”

Taylor said fire bombers dropped retardant over his house. As his home and his deck furniture turned pink from the retardant, another house nearby erupted into flames. Across the street, pine and oak trees were burned to a crisp, and small flames and smoke drifted up from chunky embers.

The town and the forest that surrounds it were a tinderbox after three years of drought. And Weed’s winds are notorious. The steady breezes were what attracted town founder Abner Weed to build his lumber business there in 1897, after he realized that wood dried more quickly when fanned by nature.

The town’s saw mill, once the world’s largest, was among the structures damaged in the blaze.

On Tuesday, chimneys were the only thing still standing in the rubble, and broken pipes spurted water over the blackened landscape. The remnants of the Holy Family Catholic Church were still smoldering, its metal girders twisted on the ground.

“I mean it was devastating,” said Maureen Campbell, the church’s music minister who was baptized, confirmed and married at the church, along with her children. She lost her home to the fire.

“The house up there is no big deal. It can be rebuilt,” she said. “But this is my family church, you know? It’s much more endearing to me.”

Fire crews took advantage of calmer winds and firefighting aircraft Tuesday, gaining control in and around Weed. By Tuesday evening, the 375-acre (152-hectare) fire was 25 percent contained. Flames still threatened in other parts of California.

Meanwhile, a wildfire north of the town of Pollock Pines, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) east of Sacramento, has forced the evacuation of at least 700 homes. The wildfire has blackened about 20 square miles (52 square kilometers) of forest land. It was only 5 percent contained.

In Oakhurst, a foothill community south of Yosemite National Park, a 320-acre (130-hectare) fire that damaged or destroyed 71 structures — 37 of them homes — was 50 percent contained. About 600 residents from 200 homes remained evacuated, Madera County sheriff’s spokeswoman Erica Stuart said.

More than 4,000 wildfires have burned in California this year.


Associated Press writers Terry Collins in San Francisco, Raquel Dillon in Weed, Alina Hartounian in Phoenix and Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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