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Fire roars into California town, wiping out 100-plus homes

A firefighter battles flames as a house is engulfed in the town of Lower Lake, Calif., on Sunday, Aug., 14, 2016. (Josh Edelson / Associated Press)
A firefighter battles flames as a house is engulfed in the town of Lower Lake, Calif., on Sunday, Aug., 14, 2016. (Josh Edelson / Associated Press)
Associated Press

LOWER LAKE, Calif. – A wind-whipped wildfire roared through a Northern California town threatened by a devastating blaze nearly a year ago, wiping out more than 100 homes and businesses and forcing thousands of people to flee, authorities said Monday.

The fire seemed calm Sunday before gusts kicked up the flames that tore through neighborhoods in Lower Lake, a rural town of roughly 1,300 about 90 miles north of San Francisco, officials said. No one was injured, but it reached Main Street and burned the post office, a winery, an antiques store, a historic firehouse and the Habitat for Humanity office as thick, black smoke loomed over the small downtown strip.

“This fire roared through the city like a wave of water – it was a wave of fire that came through here,” said Lt. Doug Pittman, a Marin County sheriff’s spokesman working on behalf of the forestry department.

The blaze was one of 11 large wildfires in the state, where high temperatures and parched conditions brought on by a five-year drought raised the fire danger. In central California, a day-old wildfire burned 20 structures and threatened 150 homes.

The fire in Lower Lake broke out Saturday afternoon and exploded to nearly 5 square miles as it fed on bone-dry vegetation. Besides the wind, 100-degree heat hindered firefighters struggling to get a handle on the largely out-of-control blaze.

“We are prepared for whatever erratic behavior the fire throws at us today,” said Daniel Berlant, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman.

Officials said at least 175 structures were destroyed in the town with working-class families and retirees drawn by a slower lifestyle and lower housing prices compared with the San Francisco Bay Area, a more than two-hour drive away.

Berlant said more than 100 homes burned but didn’t have the exact breakdown of the 175 residences, businesses and other buildings lost. At least 1,500 more structures were threatened.

Firefighters, who carried goats and other animals to safety as homes burned around them Sunday, were hopeful the wind won’t pick up again.

Residents who thought conditions were calm a day earlier went on errands in town and came back to roaring flames and smoke. Some used hoses or water from their pools to try to protect their houses.

Rick Davis, 40, told the San Francisco Chronicle that he went to lunch in Lower Lake and rushed home when he heard the fire exploded. He used a hose to wet down his roof.

“I’m just scared,” he said. “The wind can just change.”

Nearby, Garrett Reed, 43, made similar preparations.

“If I see embers and ash rain down, I will turn the sprinklers on the roof and get out,” he told the newspaper. “But this is my grandfather’s house, and I’m not going to lose it.”

Phaedra Phelps had the same thought after hearing that the flames spread and raced back from the store Sunday.

“My daddy bought this house for me 18 years ago,” Phelps told the Press Democrat newspaper in Santa Rosa. “I’m staying here. This is my home. Unless my home is on fire, I’m not going anywhere.”

The fire shifted into Lower Lake after creating its own weather pattern, said Suzie Blankenship, a Cal Fire spokeswoman. Tragically, the burned Habitat for Humanity office was raising money to help rebuild homes in nearby communities that were destroyed in one of the state’s most destructive blazes nearly a year ago.

“Emotions are still incredibly raw from the Valley Fire,” state Sen. Mike McGuire said about last year’s wildfire, which killed four people and destroyed more than 1,300 homes. “I don’t think any of us thought we’d be back where we are tonight.”

In central California, similar conditions led the wildfire near Lake Nacimiento, about 180 miles northwest of Los Angeles, to explode from 2 to nearly 7 square miles Sunday, Cal Fire spokesman Bennet Milloy said. The blaze shifted north toward the lake, leading authorities to evacuate some residents by boat. It is partially contained.

In Southern California, forecasters warned of high fire danger due to a heat wave and gusty winds.

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