Flames force Calif. residents to flee -- again

Wednesday, July 9th 2008, 5:39 pm
By: News 9


Associated Press Writer

OROVILLE, Calif. (AP) -- For Clay and Nancy Henphill, running from raging wildfires has become a familiar routine.

For the second time in just over two weeks, they were forced to evacuate their home after fire officials ordered 10,000 people in the Sierra Nevada foothills to flee ahead of a wind-whipped blaze, one of about 40 lightning-sparked wildfires that have charred 49,000 acres over the past two weeks.

The Henphills awoke to blaring sirens around 1 a.m. Tuesday and were told to leave immediately. Only a week earlier, they had returned to their home in Concow, a rural community about 90 miles north of Sacramento, after spending a week at a shelter.

"They were running sirens all down through there. We started tossing a few things in the car. A fireman said, 'Get out of here quick,"' Clay Henphill, 59, said Wednesday. "We all came out in a long lines of cars, with fire trucks going in as we were going out."

The couple grabbed clothes, medicine, camping gear and the family dog and jumped in their car. They spent Tuesday night in a tent outside an emergency shelter in Oroville.

"You almost feel like somebody is out to get you," said Nancy Henphill, 61.

By Wednesday, the lightning-sparked wildfire had destroyed at least 40 homes, mostly in Concow, and threatened nearly 4,000 others in the nearby city of Paradise and other neighboring communities. A separate wildfire destroyed 74 homes in Paradise last month.

The latest blaze flared up early Tuesday after erratic winds blew embers across fire-containment lines. The fire was burning across the Feather River from Paradise, where thousands of homes could burn if the blaze jumps the river.

Firefighters struggled against a sudden drop in humidity and a 10-degree spike in temperature brought by a heat wave that was forecast to linger until the weekend.

Dozens of evacuees spent Tuesday night at the emergency shelter at Las Plumas High School in Oroville, where people slept on cots in the gymnasium and ate meals donated by businesses and churches.

Mary Johnston, 22, who lives near Concow with her father and two young children, burst into tears Wednesday when she saw a photo of her charred house in the Chico Record Enterprise newspaper.

"I'm going nuts. Everything's gone," Johnston sobbed. "It's been so trying, especially with my kids. They don't even know what's going on. It's kind of hard telling them everything's gone, all your toys."

Fire crews across the state have been straining to cover hundreds of active California wildfires, many of which were ignited by a lightning storm more than two weeks ago. Some 1,450 fires had been contained late Tuesday, but more than 320 still were active, authorities said.

On the state's Central Coast, firefighters pushed back a blaze threatening Big Sur -- enough to allow hundreds of people to return to their homes Tuesday and Wednesday. At least 24 homes and 31 other structures have been destroyed in Big Sur.

A fire burning in the Santa Ynez Mountains above the Santa Barbara County coast, was more than half contained Wednesday. More than 1,100 firefighters, nine helicopters and five air tankers were battling the flames, which had blackened more than 9,700 acres northwest of Los Angeles.

Light winds helped the effort, but the weather was expected to get hotter and drier, with highs possibly surpassing 100 degrees later Wednesday.

"It could be a pivotal day," said Byron Haire, U.S. Forest Service spokesman.

Some people who had been forced to flee days ago were settling back in.

Wieke Meulenkamp, a mother of two young daughters, had gathered her family, valuables and two dogs and fled the flames, staying with friends for three days. By Sunday, she returned to her home in the mountaintop community of Painted Cave. "It looks pretty good now," she said. "But you're never out of danger up here."


Associated Press writers Terence Chea in San Francisco and Christina Hoag in Goleta contributed to this story.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)