N. Calif. fire near Redding destroys 84 buildings

August 23, 2012 - 8:43 PM
Western Wildfires

A firefighting helicopter reloads its supply of retardant before heading out to make a drop on the Ponderosa Fire near Paynes Creek, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012. The Ponderosa Fire, which has scorched about 38 square miles since Saturday, was 50 percent contained Wednesday morning, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The threat to homes about 35 miles east of Redding has dropped from 3,500 earlier this week to roughly 200 residences. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

MINERAL, Calif. (AP) — Twisted sheets of metal, the hulks of pickup trucks and brick walls were all that was left of dozens of homes once sheltered by green pine and cedar trees in several Northern California communities that were the latest to feel the wrath of massive western wildfires.

Thousands of residents of the rural communities just outside Lassen Volcanic National Park were allowed to return home after being forced flee soon after the blaze was ignited by lightning Saturday. They surveyed the damaged Thursday as others in the region prepared to leave.

The Ponderosa Fire was 57 percent contained, with full containment expected early next week. But the blaze threatened 900 other homes Thursday as it burned a new front to the south.

"All our efforts are focused on keeping the fire out of the park," state fire spokesman Don Camp said Thursday.

Sixty-four homes and 20 other buildings have been destroyed, mostly in the Manton area, Camp said.

More than 2,500 firefighters were battling the wildfire, which grew to 44 square miles in the hills about 25 miles southeast of Redding.

As he monitored helicopters dropping retardant on the rim of the Battle Creek Canyon in nearby Mineral, CalFire Division Chief Scott Lindgren said Thursday the rugged, densely forested land has been challenging for his crews.

"The further east we go, the harder it is to stop this fire," Lindgren said. "The problem is, we catch up to it on the top of the canyon at night, but we can't catch up to it at the bottom because of the cliff."

Bob Folsom, who works at an area hydroelectric facility, tended the gasoline generator that was keeping his refrigerator running while utility crews worked to replace power lines destroyed by the blaze when it roared through the area last weekend.

"I was ready for this day," he said. "I try to be self-sufficient."

Folsom and his son never left their home as the fire burned within a half mile of them last weekend, close enough that they heard trees exploding and the flames roaring like a freight train. Over the past 10 years, they had thinned hundreds of trees, dug a pond to store water, and installed hydrants to fill fire hoses.

"When it comes through, it's gonna come fast," he said. "You don't have time to cut down trees."

Just outside Mineral, Jane Carney, Kelly Strong and Sherill Jenkins said Thursday they were ready to leave their vacation home if necessary.

"We'll get out if we're told to get out," Strong said. "That's 'if' we are get told to."

Asked why they choose to stay, Jenkins said, "It's beautiful up here."

Also in California, a large wildfire in Plumas National Forest continued to expand, helped by gusty winds.

The blaze, about 120 miles north of Sacramento, has consumed 99 square miles since it started at the end of July and threatens about 900 homes. It was 40 percent contained Thursday.

Wildfires also continued burning elsewhere in the West.

In Washington state, fire crews still hoped to fully contain a week-old wildfire that has destroyed 51 homes and 26 outbuildings and damaged at least six other homes, authorities said.

The fire, about 75 miles east of Seattle, has caused an estimated $8.3 million in property damage.

In central Idaho, firefighters started a burnout operation near the town of Featherville to deny an approaching wildfire the fuel it would need to reach hundreds of homes that were evacuated last weekend.

Fire managers said favorable weather conditions allowed them start lighting ignitions late Wednesday to burn and remove vegetation that could have served as fuel for the massive Trinity Ridge Fire, which has charred 164 square miles.

As of early Thursday, the operation to create a buffer around the town of Featherville had so far been successful and was expected to continue. The area was evacuated Saturday due to heavy smoke from the Trinity Ridge Fire.

The cost of fighting the wildfire is now estimated at $15.6 million.

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Collins reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writer Nicholas K. Geranios in Spokane, Wash., contributed to this report.