Thousands Evacuated Due to 14 Large Wildfires in California

Two fires exploded in size at separate ends of Santa Barbara County, fueled by hot and dry weather

Major wildfires in California, including one that tore through a Boy Scouts camp in Santa Barbara County, have forced nearly 8,000 people out of their homes during a weekend of hot and dry conditions.

CAL FIRE reported 14 large wildfires -- fires of 300 acres or more -- burning throughout the state, fueled by fire weather conditions and lush hillsides covered with crops of brush after one of California's wettest winters in years. The total acreage burned so far this year in California has more than doubled 2016's number.

At least 3,500 people evacuated as two fires exploded in size at separate ends of Santa Barbara County and a third one threatened homes near a town in San Luis Obispo County. One of the fires grew to 12 square miles, traversing a mountain range and heading south toward coastal Goleta.

"It's a rough fight," Jim Harris, the national forest's deputy fire chief, told reporters Sunday afternoon.

The fire damaged buildings at the Rancho Alegre Boy Scouts of America outdoor school, killing animals at its nature center and leaving the camp in ruins.

There was minimal containment, and flames shut down State Route 154, which is expected to remain closed for days. At least 20 structures burned, but officials didn't say if they were homes.

The fire broke out near a campsite and sent hundreds of campers scrambling, including about 90 children and 50 staff members at the Circle V Ranch who had to take shelter until they could be safely evacuated.

Crews were also using an air attack against another blaze about 50 miles north that exploded in size to 37.5 square miles. About 200 rural homes east of Santa Maria were evacuated after the fire broke out Saturday and was fed by dry gusts.

Some of the firefighters working to contain that blaze were sent to nearby San Luis Obispo County when a fire broke out Sunday and threatened numerous structures near the town of Santa Margarita. Officials said the fire burned 340 acres.

In Northern California, about 4,000 people evacuated and another 7,400 were told to prepare to leave their homes as fire swept through grassy foothills in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, about 60 miles north of Sacramento, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Sunday. The fire has burned nearly 4 square miles, injured four firefighters and destroyed at least 10 structures, but that number is expected to rise, fire spokeswoman Mary Ann Aldrich said.

The area burning was southeast of Oroville, where spillways in the nation's tallest dam began crumbling from heavy rains this winter and led to temporary evacuation orders for 200,000 residents downstream.

"It leaves you feeling like you can't catch a break," said Sharon Reitan, who sought shelter at an evacuation center with her boyfriend Sunday night.

They were in Oroville on Friday afternoon when the fire broke out and roads to their hillside home were blocked. They later saw photographs of their home burned to the ground.

"The road that we live on was hit hard," Reitan said. "We're in shut down mode right now, it's so devastating."

The fire was 20 percent contained. It was one of 14 wildfires across California that about 5,000 firefighters battled Sunday.

CAL FIRE reported 2,905 fires in California from Jan. 1 to July 9. Those fires scorched more than 68,000 acres. During that same period last year, CAL FIRE reported 2,270 fires that burned 30,500 acres.

The state five-year average for that period is 27,390 acres. 

A report released June 1 provided a wildfire outlook for the hot, dry summer months in California. The National Interagency Fire Center report wildfire risk will be high in inland Southern California in July and in parts of Northern California during August and September. The state is coming off one of its wettest winters in years, which left hillsides covered in grass and other vegetation. 

That grass will dry out this summer and turn into tinder, providing fuel for rapidly spreading fires often pushed by strong winds. The report noted what could be a delayed start to the wildfire season in some locations. 

An increase in the number of dead and dying trees also can exacerbate the wildfire threat, Cal Fire officials said. An estimated 102 million trees have died in California due to the state's five-year dry spell and bark beetle infestation.

The agency has been urging residents to take prevention steps now, such as maintaining 100 feet of defensible space Around homes and other structures. Defensible space provides a natural buffer between buildings and grass, trees, bushes, shrubs and other vegetation that can burn.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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