WEED, Calif. (AP) — Dan Linville and his son were sitting in their living room when they smelled smoke. When they looked outside, they saw a black cloud coming over the hills.
Ten minutes later, a wildfire driven by fierce winds raced through their neighborhood, missing them by three houses and torching a roof across the street.
Officials said the fast-moving fire caught residents in the small town of Weed near the Oregon border off guard and damaged or destroyed 100 homes and a church in this tiny town. At least 1,500 people were forced to flee.
It 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 increased the fire danger around the state significantly and sent firefighters scrambling seemingly nonstop from blaze to blaze.
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 the town of Weed, 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 grew little 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 in the afternoon, and winds gusting up to 40 mph pushed it into and around town, where flames mowed through a hillside neighborhood.
The town sawmill caught fire, and a Catholic church was destroyed.
“It ran basically right through the east side of town. At the peak, essentially the entire town was evacuated, but a lot of that has since dropped off,” state fire spokesman Robert Foxworthy said.
Blowing embers started spot fires as much as a half-mile ahead of the fire front, and evacuations were called for about 1,500 to 2,000 people, 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.
By nightfall, some houses were burned to their foundation. The fire knocked out power to the area, and people were left wandering the town center with flashlights as the fire glowed up in the hills.
Violet Carter, a freshman at Weed High School, said that when the fire alarm went off, 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. That whole hill was on fire,” she said.
Randy Coates, who rushed to pick up his daughter when the high school 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 35 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.
Two fire crews returning from 24 hours of fighting the fire got into a crash with a vehicle Monday, state fire spokesman Ryan Michaels said. No firefighter was injured in the crash, but three people in a Nissan that got pinned under a firetruck were sent to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, California Highway Patrol Officer Brad Simpson said.
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 full of thick, dry brush. It grew rapidly and had burned through more than 18 square miles as of Tuesday morning. It was only 5 percent contained.