WEED, Calif. (AP) — A fire driven by fierce winds raced through a small town near the Oregon border on Monday, burning a church to the ground, damaging or destroying 100 homes and prompting evacuation orders for at least 1,500 people, authorities said.
This tiny town near the base of Mount Shasta in the Cascade Mountains was under siege from a 350-acre blaze that surged toward and through it through timberland.
The town sawmill caught fire, and a Catholic church was destroyed.
The blaze erupted around 1:30 p.m. south of Weed, a scenic town of nearly 3,000 located about 50 miles south of the Oregon border and about half way between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon.
"It was fast-moving, fanned by incredibly gusty winds of up to 40 mph," state fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. "It went into and around the town."
Blowing embers started spot fires as much as a half-mile ahead of the fire front, and evacuations were called for Weed and two outskirt subdivisions.
About 1,500 to 2,000 people were ordered 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. By dusk it was 15 percent contained, state fire spokeswoman Suzi Brady said.
"We stopped the forward spread of the fire," she said late Monday.
The fire mowed through the area.
"Black land. Very flat. A lot of trees burned, a lot of sad, scared folks," Brady said.
Randy Coates said he and his wife rushed to pick up their daughter when her high school was evacuated. He said that on their way back home, they saw the town's Catholic and Presbyterian churches, houses and backyards on fire. Driving by a wood mill, they saw piles of wood chips on fire.
"As we came out of the high school both sides of the road were on fire," Coates said.
For a while, authorities had to close Interstate 5, the main freeway between California and Oregon, in the area. The fire also knocked out power to most of the town, and people were left wandering the town center with flashlights Monday night.
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 have forced hundreds to evacuate their homes, including one near a lakeside resort that destroyed nearly two-dozen structures.
In central California, firefighters spent the day working to build and reinforce containment lines in steep terrain near a foothill community south of an entrance to Yosemite National Park. About 600 residents from 200 homes remained evacuated, Madera County sheriff's spokeswoman Erica Stuart said.
The blaze has burned 320 acres and destroyed 61 structures — 33 of them homes — as well as 13 vehicles and four recreational vehicles, CalFire spokesman Dennis Mathisen said. The fire started off a road outside of Oakhurst, near Yosemite, and spread to Bass Lake, a popular year-round destination.
About 650 firefighters were on the scene of the blaze, which is 35 percent contained and has not affected the park, Mathisen said.
Two fire crews returning from 24 hours of fighting the fire got into a crash with a vehicle, CalFire spokesman Ryan Michaels said. No firefighter was injured in the crash; three people in a Nissan that got pinned under a firetruck were sent to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, said California Highway Patrol Officer Brad Simpson.
The cause of the fire has not yet been determined.
The blaze is the latest to hit the area, which is still reeling from the Junction Fire near downtown Oakhurst that destroyed eight structures earlier this summer.
"I really feel for this community, which has already been through a lot," 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 800 firefighters are battling the blaze, which started in a remote area Saturday but exploded Sunday when it reached a canyon full of thick, dry brush. It more than doubled in size to nearly 13 1/2 square miles, and was only 5 percent contained.
A fire crew was forced to deploy a fire shelter on Monday, and no major injuries were reported in the incident, Berlant said.
In Southern California, a fire that forced the evacuation of 200 homes in Orange County's Silverado Canyon over the weekend was started by the sun's rays reflecting off sheet metal that edged a homeowner's backyard garden, officials said Monday.
The 2-foot-tall metal fencing surrounded a vegetable garden and was intended to keep small rodents out, Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Steve Concialdi said. The sheet metal ignited a wooden border and nearby grass and then spread.
The homeowner will not be charged or fined for the accidental blaze, Concialdi said.
Evacuation orders were lifted late Sunday as the fire is 80 percent contained. The fire started Friday and grew to 1½ square miles, the U.S. Forest Service said.
Associated Press writers Terry Collins in San Francisco and Gillian Flaccus in Tustin, California, contributed to this report.