Flashbacks: Charred California town is no stranger to wildfires

WEED, Calif. — Her house destroyed, her dog is missing and her 10-year relationship with her boyfriend recently ended.

“It can’t be worse,” she said.

Vogelsang is among thousands displaced this week through California’s latest hellhole, this time in the small community of Weed about 451 kilometers northeast of San Francisco. Most visitors know this town as a novelty, a place to stop on a trip on Interstate 5 and buy a tongue-in-cheek t-shirt.

But for the people who live here, the past few years have introduced another worry to a world full of them: dark skies, swirling ash, and flames that race so fast they give little time to escape.

This time it was a fire known as the Mill Fire. Flames rushed from Roseburg Forest Products, which makes wood products, to the Lincoln Heights neighborhood where a significant number of homes burned and residents had to flee for their lives Friday afternoon. The blaze spread more than 6.1 square miles (15.9 square kilometers) on Saturday morning and was 20% contained.

After fleeing the blaze, Judy Christenson, 63, recalled a similar escape 40 years ago when, as a young parent, she had to rush her children out of a burning house. Last summer, a forest fire forced her to evacuate and leave her pets behind. Now, Christenson says she leaves harnesses on her pets all the time so she can grab them at a moment’s notice and walk away.

“Every time this happens I get really bad,” Christenson said from the front seat of a car at an evacuation center in Yreka as Felix, her orange cat, took a nap in the backseat. “I can not think straight.”

Nestled in the shadow of Mount Shasta — a 14,000-foot (4,267.2-meter) volcano that’s the second-highest peak in the Cascade Range — Weed is no stranger to wildfires.

Strong winds in the area that fanned the flames attracted the town’s founder for a very different reason. Abner Weed, a Civil War soldier who allegedly witnessed the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee before moving to California, chose to set up a sawmill there because the wind would dry out the lumber, according to Bob West, a longtime resident. who co-owns Ellie’s Espresso and Bakery, a cafe and sandwich shop that features historic items from the city’s past.

The winds make Weed and surrounding areas a dangerous place for wildfires, whipping small flames into a frenzy. Weed has seen three major fires since 2014, a period of extreme drought that resulted in the largest and most destructive blazes in California history.

This drought persists as California heads into what is traditionally the worst of the fire season. Scientists say climate change has made the West hotter and drier over the past three decades and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.

Dominique Mathes, 37, said he had had close calls with wildfires since living in Weed. But he’s not interested in leaving.

“It’s a beautiful place,” he said. “Everyone has risks everywhere, like Florida has hurricanes and floods, Louisiana has tornadoes and all that. So it happens everywhere. Unfortunately here, it’s the fires.

Evacuation orders were quickly put into effect on Friday for 7,500 people – including West, who is 53 and has lived in Weed since he was a year old. He had never had to evacuate for a fire, but now he had to do it twice.

“It’s much worse than before,” he said. “It affects our community because people are leaving because they don’t want to rebuild.”

Cal Fire Siskiyou Unit Chief Phil Anzo said crews were working all day and night to protect structures in Weed and an eastern subdivision known as Carrick Addition. He said about 100 structures were destroyed.

Two people were taken to Mercy Medical Center Mount Shasta. One was in stable condition and the other was transferred to UC Davis Medical Center, which has a burn unit.

“There’s a lot at stake on this Mill Fire,” Anzo said. “There are a lot of communities, a lot of homes there.”

Evacuees and firefighters quickly filled local hotels while others rushed to stay with family and friends outside the evacuation zone.

Vogelsang was not so lucky. She said she slept on a bench in Weed until she could be taken to the evacuation center. She said she spent most of her time crying about Bella, her 10-year-old English bulldog who, despite her best efforts, wouldn’t follow her out of the fire and is lost.

“My dog ​​was everything to me,” she said. “I just feel like I lost everything that mattered.”

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Associated Press reporter Stefanie Dazio contributed from Los Angeles.

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