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Caldor Fire explodes, leveling parts of a California town and forcing thousands to evacuate

As wildfires raged through Northern California, a red-flag warning was in effect due to shifting winds. (Video: The Washington Post)

A previous version of this article incorrectly said 100 fires were burning in California. The state has 11 of the approximately 100 fires active nationally. A previous version of this article also incorrectly said 860,500 acres burned in California last year. In fact, 860,500 acres burned just through this day last year.

A fast-growing fire in Northern California consumed much of a small town outside Sacramento on Tuesday, two weeks after a blaze tore through the historic community of Greenville, underscoring the mounting challenges facing firefighters across the state.

The Caldor Fire in El Dorado County exploded from 6,500 acres Tuesday to more than 53,000 acres by Wednesday morning, officials said, scorching parts of Grizzly Flats as firefighters ordered thousands to evacuate.

Images from Grizzly Flats show numerous homes destroyed — some with only frames left standing, others completely leveled. Cars were blackened, edges of road signs curled by heat, and power lines scorched on the ground. At Walt Tyler Elementary School, only an outdoor playground set escaped the flames, the Sacramento Bee reported.

“We know this fire has done things that nobody could have predicted,” Jeff Marsolais, Eldorado National Forest supervisor, said Tuesday evening at a briefing. “But that’s how firefighting has been in the state this year.”

Seeking to avoid sparking more flames amid tinder-dry conditions, Pacific Gas and Electric said Tuesday that it had cut power to about 51,000 customers in parts of 18 counties. The utility said it hoped to restore service Wednesday afternoon.

Fire officials said the dire wildfire season, on track to break records set last year, has strained their resources as they respond to about 100 blazes nationally. More than 240 firefighters were battling the Caldor Fire, which kindled Saturday in a remote area and was completely uncontained. Out-of-state assistance also was requested to help fight the flames.

By late Tuesday, at least 16,380 people were under evacuation orders in El Dorado County, according to the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. About 31,000 people across seven counties in the state were ordered to flee as numerous wildfires remain active.

Caldor Fire grows overnight; winds add to fire danger

More than 1.3 million acres in California have burned this year, shooting past last year’s count of 860,500 by this date. Thom Porter, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told reporters Wednesday that the blazes were causing “generational destruction of forests” and that recovery would take a long time.

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the emergency services office, emphasized the destructive impact of climate change on wildfire season.

“It’s important for all Californians to understand the severity of how our climate-driven conditions are altering the environment and are making these fires move faster and making them more complex and, ultimately, more dangerous than anything we’ve faced in the past,” Ghilarducci told reporters.

Officials were keeping a particularly close watch on the destructive Dixie Fire as it expanded east toward the 15,000-population town of Susanville. The blaze is the second-largest wildfire in state history and continues to grow. It gutted Greenville on Aug. 4.

As of Wednesday night, the fire had burned 662,647 acres and was 34 percent contained.

The Dixie Fire’s movement worried fire officials and prompted evacuation warnings in nearby areas, Capt. Daniel Bertucelli, a spokesman for the firefighting effort, said Wednesday. Porter told reporters that Dixie was “exceedingly resistant to control” and would burn for the foreseeable future. It has become the first fire to cross from the west side of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the valley floor on the east side, he said.

Despite dry conditions, Bertucelli expressed optimism that significantly lower temperatures and a decrease in wind Wednesday would help firefighters contain the blaze. Hundreds of evacuees from the Dixie Fire have been sheltering at a college in Susanville and are on notice that they could have to leave again.

Fire officials said Grizzly Flats, with about 1,200 residents, was heavily affected by the Caldor Fire, though they did not share details on the extent of the devastation at Tuesday’s briefing and said they were still assessing the damage.

Images and videos shared on social media show hazy, orange-hued skies shrouded in smoke as far as the Lake Tahoe area, more than an hour’s drive from Grizzly Flats. The National Weather Service in Reno, Nev., shared a clip of darkened skies on Tuesday, “all due to the Caldor Fire.”

What they saved from the flames

Rita Damron normally works in an office about a half-hour away from her home in Pollock Pines in El Dorado County, near the northwestern perimeter of the fire, but she said she had a gut feeling Tuesday that she should work from home.

At 6 a.m., she looked out her window and saw smoke. Two hours later, the plumes had quadrupled in size, she said.

Damron and her boyfriend began packing for themselves, their two dogs and their cat. They left soon after getting an initial text warning residents to prepare for an evacuation. Traffic was backed up as neighbors piled into their vehicles and headed toward the freeway, plumes of smoke filling the sky above them.

“Every which way you looked, people were outside, loading up their cars,” Damron said, describing neighbors stopping to help one another load up everything from bags to horses. “As terrifying as it was, it was nice to see how the little community could come together.”

Kylee Campbell moved five years ago to Grizzly Flats, where homes were close together and many people lived within walking distance of the pine-filled Eldorado National Forest. Amenities were scarce, making the area relatively affordable.

Campbell, 59, said she and her husband got an evacuation warning Monday evening. Disturbed by the urgent tone of the police radio chatter, the couple decided to leave immediately.

The air was smoky as they packed family photos, their favorite clothes and their valuables. As their neighbors fled town, an orange glow emanated from the forest, the sound of trees exploding rang out and police circled, urging residents to leave.

“There were embers that were like eight inches long going over into our pine trees that were in the front yard,” Campbell said. “And that’s when I knew and was like, ‘Let’s go now.’ ”

At least two Caldor Fire-related injuries had been reported as of Tuesday afternoon. One person was transported from the Grizzly Flats area by air ambulance with serious injuries, according to Cal Fire. A second severely injured person also was brought to a hospital.

The Caldor Fire and other blazes in Northern California over the past month have repeatedly surpassed officials’ expectations, Marsolais said.

“Every time a fire broke, it outpaced our models two to one,” he said. “And so we’re seeing that again here.”

Competing blazes and a heat wave are complicating efforts to help Dixie Fire evacuees

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Tuesday declared a state of emergency for El Dorado County because of the Caldor Fire. The governor also said the state had secured federal assistance to support the response to the fast-growing blaze.

The Caldor Fire also forced the emergency closure of the Eldorado National Forest, which will remain in effect through the end of September.

In a Tuesday evening update, fire officials wrote that there was “unprecedented fire behavior and growth” and that conditions forced crews to shift from creating fire-control lines to evacuating residents and protecting buildings.

Red-flag warnings noting high fire danger are in effect for swaths of the West, including parts of Northern California. A Cal Fire update noted that a red-flag warning for the Caldor Fire area was in effect through Wednesday evening because of concerning winds, combined with low humidity and extremely dry vegetation.

The blaze had grown so fast, officials said at a briefing, that they did not have a map of the fire zone available to share.

Damron and her boyfriend have been trying to decipher information online to figure out what might have happened to their home.

“We’re still in a waiting game, in a holding pattern,” she said. “We don’t know when we’ll get back or if our house has been affected.”

Read more:

Thousands have been told to leave their homes as Dixie Fire spreads. What should you do if you need to evacuate?

The Dixie Fire destroyed this small California town. A week later, its residents remain in limbo.

Competing blazes and a heat wave are complicating efforts to help Dixie Fire evacuees

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