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Evacuations remain after wildfire chars California towns

Created: 02/09/2015 1:21 PM
By: By KRISTIN J. BENDER

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Four firefighters were injured battling a wind-driven wildfire that ravaged communities along the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada and destroyed 40 homes in an area that could see more wildfires as the state enters its fourth year of drought.

As the fire headed into a fourth day Monday, more than 200 people were still under orders to stay away from their homes in Swall Meadows and nearby Paradise, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Capt. Liz Brown said.

People whose homes were not destroyed could be allowed back in as early as Monday afternoon, Brown said. The firefighters' injuries were minor, she said.

Rain moved in during the last few days, but it hasn't been enough to completely put out the fire. A three-year drought across California has created extremely dry timber brush that fueled the flames and pushed them all the way up the Sierra slopes to the snow line around 8,000 feet, she said.

A lot of rain is helpful for putting a stop to wintertime wildfires, but a small amount of rain can actually make things worse, Brown said. "When the rain comes and a little grass grows and dries up, it becomes fire kindling," she said.

The fire started Friday afternoon near a highway on the border of Inyo and Mono counties. It blew up when 50 to 75 mph winds whipped through wooded areas near the two communities for about three hours, Brown said.

Quick evacuations made getting the firefighting started easier. "We are so grateful (people) left when we asked them to," Brown said. "People listened, they left and we are able to focus on the firefighting."

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, and authorities don't yet have a tally of the damage, Brown said.

Firefighters made progress, and they have since contained 85 percent of the 11-square-mile blaze that has charred about 7,000 acres. Smoking debris on hillsides does not pose a threat to homes or other structures, authorities said.

This current fire could be contained by Tuesday afternoon, but others may soon follow.

"The threat (of a wildfire) is there all year round," Brown said "There are just peak periods when it's a little more dry and dangerous."

Although Monday was dry with high winds expected and no rain in the forecast, firefighters are being extra cautious. "When the wind comes up, we are going to be on high alert to make sure we don't have more issues," Brown said.

More than 500 fire crews battled the blaze over the past few days.

Utility workers tended to the charred power poles along the roads in the two towns, and forestry crews sawed at fallen trees that blocked a main thoroughfare. Nearby, two gutted, gray trucks rested on a driveway that led to a pile of rubble.

Meanwhile, officials running the evacuation center in Crowley Lake said they received an outpouring of support. Pizzas, fresh fruit and a birthday cake collected on a folding table, while a white board filled up with the names and phone numbers of people who had volunteered their homes for displaced people and pets.

No one has stayed in the shelter since the fire started Friday, Crowley Lake Shelter Manager Robyn Grasseschi said.

"This is a small, tight-knit community, and friends and motels stepped forward and took everyone in," she said. "There has been a huge outpouring of support from all over. We are grateful. We are still accepting donations. Money and gift cards are preferable, but anything and all are accepted."

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Associated Press writer Michelle Rindels contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2015 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)



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