NorCal Wildfires Destroy Homes, Force Thousands to Flee

By: Don Thompson AP
By: Don Thompson AP

PARADISE, Calif. (AP) - As a wildfire bore down on his home of 15 years, hopscotching between properties here, Larry Knifong decided to take his chances and stay - that is, until the flames raced up a ridge toward this ranch-style house.

"It was just moving very, very fast, it was just picking and choosing what it wanted," said Knifong, who was back at his property Friday after the fire passed through. It had spared his home, but his neighbors down the way weren't so lucky.

At least 40 homes were destroyed and thousands of residents evacuated the Butte County town of Paradise, about 90 miles north of Sacramento, to escape the blaze that contributed to at least one death - an elderly woman who suffered a heart attack while evacuating. It's the only fatality associated with Northern California fires this month.

That blaze was just one of a series vexing firefighters across Northern California on Friday. A wildfire in Monterey County continued to chew through the Los Padres National Forest, and flames in the Santa Cruz County kept hundreds of residents away from their mountain homes.

Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the Butte County fire was the most dangerous because it was moving toward Paradise on Friday, prompting officials to call for another round of precautionary evacuations for 4,500 people there. About 9,000 resident evacuated the area a day earlier, but officials had reopened roads to some of those homes Friday.

Only 15 percent of the fire was contained by Friday morning, and it had charred more than 20,000 acres. Five firefighters have sustained minor injuries.

Lighter winds on Friday gave firefighters optimism that they would make significant gains.

"The winds have died down ... and our firefighting units throughout the state are making great progress," Grijalva said.

Cal Fire spokesman Joshpae White, one of the firefighters injured, said he was escorting reporters through the fire area in a pickup truck when the flames quickly began closing in. After safely evacuating the reporters, he helped nearby firefighters escape and was forced to drive through a wall of fire.

"It looked like a million blowtorches across the road," White said. "We were taking significant heat. The heat was so intense, the windshield began cracking."

White and another firefighter were treated for minor burns.

In recent days, hot temperatures, steady winds and tinder-dry vegetation have fueled the destructive blazes around the state.

In Santa Cruz County, officials said many residents evacuated because of a wildfire that has scorched 600 acres and burned at least 10 homes in the Bonny Doon community were allowed to return to their homes Friday. An evacuation order was still in place, however, for some areas where firefighters were still trying to reign in a blaze that was 25 percent contained.

Officials did not immediately have an estimate of how many people were being let back into their homes.

More than 1,500 residents had been told to evacuate their homes in the heavily forested hills about 10 miles northwest of Santa Cruz since the fire broke out Wednesday afternoon. The fire flared just two weeks after another blaze two miles away scorched 4,200 acres and destroyed at least three dozen homes in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency in
Butte County and Santa Cruz County to free up additional firefighting resources.

Farther south, another wildfire had charred more than 18,600 acres in the Los Padres National Forest in Monterey County. It was nearly 40 percent contained Friday.

That fire had spread east to a remote part of the Army's Fort Hunter Liggett base Thursday, but winds were driving the flames away from inhabited areas of the military base, said Manny Madrigal, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

Four families with homes near the base were evacuated, but the 5,000 military personnel who live there were not in immediate danger, said Fort Hunter Liggett spokeswoman Helen Elrod.

Several firefighters have suffered injuries while fighting the
wind-stoked fires over the past few days.

Three firefighters were burned near Lincoln, about 25 miles northeast of Sacramento, when they were caught in a 65-acre grass fire burning in a dry rice field.

Two of them had moderate to severe burns to their faces and arms. They were in stable condition.

The third was released from a hospital after treatment for minor facial burns.

The burn center was also treating a firefighter who was severely burned Tuesday while trying to protect a mobile home near a wind-blown grass fire southeast of Sacramento. Capt. Steven J. Eggiman, a 21-year veteran of the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, was in good condition Friday after undergoing surgery burns to his hands, arms and nose.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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