Californians facing nights in wildfire evacuation shelters

A firefighter lights a backfire as the Rocky Fire burns near Clearlake, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 3, 2015. The fire has charred more than 60,000 acres and destroyed at least 24 residences. (Josh Edelson/AP)
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CLEAR LAKE, Calif. — As firefighters battled a massive Northern California wildfire threatening numerous homes, some of the 13,000 people urged to flee their residences spent what may be just one of many nights in evacuation shelters.

The blaze grew to more than 101 square miles Tuesday as it chewed through drought-withered brush that has not burned in years in the Lower Lake area, about 100 miles north of San Francisco.

More than 3,000 firefighters tried to stand their ground against the fire that jumped a highway that had served as a containment line and grew by several square miles despite cooler weather and higher humidity. Its rapid growth caught firefighters off guard and shocked residents.

Vicki Estrella, who has lived in the area for 22 years, stayed at a Red Cross shelter at Middletown High School with her husband and their dog.

“It’s amazing the way that thing spread,” Estrella said. “There was smoke 300 feet in the air.”

Cooler weather Tuesday is helping crews build a buffer between the flames and some of the 6,900 homes it threatens. Despite the fire’s growth, no additional homes were consumed outside the two dozen already destroyed.

More than 13,000 people have been forced to evacuate or warned to leave since the blaze ignited Wednesday.

“This is the number one priority wildfire in the state of California, so it is getting the lion’s share of resources,” said Modesto Fire Department Battalion Chief Hugo Patino, who has a crew on the lines.

Crews have conducted controlled burns, setting fire to shrubs to rob the blaze of fuel and protect homes in a rural area of grasslands and steep hills. Nearly a week into the fight, fatigue has set in for crews, leading resources from in and out of state to rotate in.

“There were too many (spot fires) for us to pick up,” Battalion Chief Carl Schwettmann of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection told the San Francisco Chronicle. “With these drought-stricken fuels, it’s just moving at an extremely high rate of speed.”

Many people are aiding evacuees, handing out items such as pillows, apples and piles of French toast.

Tabetha Atwood, owner of Our Happy Tails Etc., a dog bakery in Clear Lake, helped match wayward dogs with their owners Tuesday. She also had dog treats on hand for folks who came by with their pets.

“These are our friends, our family and our neighbors,” she said.

The fire — the largest blaze in California — roughly tripled in size over the weekend, generating its own winds that fanned the flames and reduced thousands of acres of manzanita shrubs and other brush to barren land in hours.

“There’s a lot of old growth-type vegetation and four years of drought to dry it all out,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, a Cal Fire spokeswoman. “It was ready to go.”

The White House said President Barack Obama was briefed on the fire and has asked his aides to stay in close touch with California Gov. Jerry Brown and other local officials.

Numerous other wildfires in California, Washington state and Oregon took off as the effects of drought and summer heat turned the West Coast combustible.

California blazes killed a firefighter last week and injured four others. Crews battled at least 20 other wildfires in the state — some sparked by lightning — though none as big as the Lower Lake blaze.

The fire is well short of historic proportions, however. One of the largest wildfires in California history was a 2013 blaze that took out 400 square miles of Sierra Nevada wilderness.

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