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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Mill fire in northern California has killed at least two people, officials say

Authorities said the Mill Fire has forced the evacuation of thousands of people in Northern California and claimed at least two lives.

By Holly Dillemuth and Shawn Hubler

Wind-whipped fires that have forced the evacuation of thousands in Northern California have killed at least two people, authorities said Sunday.

The news of the deaths came as firefighters struggled for a third day to vanquish the flames. The Mill fire, which erupted Friday near a defunct lumber mill in the town of Weed, California, has consumed more than 4,200 acres there and in nearby communities and destroyed at least 100 homes, local officials said, although they are still assessing the damage. Among the areas devastated was the Lincoln Heights area of Weed, a historically Black community that was founded by Black mill workers in the 1920s.

Witnesses said the fire, whipped by howling winds, exploded so suddenly that there was scarcely time to evacuate. By Sunday afternoon, it was 25% contained.

The two killed in the Mill fire were women, ages 66 and 73, said Jeremiah LaRue, the Siskiyou County sheriff-coroner. They were not related, he said. “We have lost two people to this fire,” LaRue told a community meeting in Montague, a town north of the fires. “There’s no easy way of putting that.”

The Mill fire was the first of two substantial blazes to ignite Friday in Siskiyou County, near the Oregon border. As of Sunday afternoon, the larger Mountain fire had raced through more than 8,400 acres and was only about 10% contained. Overall, 4,300 firefighters from across California were working to contain those two fires, according to Cal Fire, the state’s fire protection agency.

On Sunday, residents of Weed and other communities including Lake Shastina were trying to process the destruction and scale of loss.

Stacey Green, a city councilor in Weed, home to about 2,900 people, has lived in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood for more than 50 years. The fire destroyed his home and took everything he had.

“My point of reference is just dirt. Black, gray dirt, and it’s leveled,” he said at a Red Cross evacuation center provided by the Karuk Tribe in Yreka, about 30 miles north of Weed.

Green was taking a nap Friday when he heard knocking on his door. He woke up to see flames engulfing a tree in his front yard. He then saw that his backyard was on fire, too. Across from his home on Crestmore Avenue, houses were already in flames, he said. Unable to find his keys, wallet or shoes, he left with only his cellphone and the clothes on his back. Surrounded by smoke, he walked to a nearby highway in his socks.

On Monday, Green will spend his 59th birthday at the evacuation center, not the room he grew up in. His grand piano, which he learned to play by ear, will not be there. Neither will the photographs of his late parents.

“I feel like a piece of me is gone. That’s what made me, and that’s no longer there,” he said.

Eddie Russell, who lived in an apartment in Lincoln Heights, was another evacuee at the shelter. He said that he had just moved back to Weed in May from Georgia, where he had lived for two decades, after his mother had died. He felt like he was putting down roots in Lincoln Heights.

“That was my home, I was settling down,” Russell said.

He, too, lost everything in the fire, including a tablet with photographs of his mother.

“All I had was my backpack and the clothes on my back,” Russell said. He said he was upbeat but honest about his loss, and that it would not be the first time he needed to start over in life.

Many longtime residents of Siskiyou County are also familiar with that predicament. But after the Boles fire in 2014 and the Lava fire in 2021, along with recent fires in Yreka, the continual evacuations have many in the region reeling.

LaRue said that the fires have been “devastating” for the working-class small towns. He added that residents who live within fire zones can face “extraordinarily” high insurance rates, making it hard for people to afford premiums and adequate coverage.

The geography of Weed is a factor in its vulnerability to fire. The town was founded as a lumber town, and the mill was built there because the winds coming off Mount Shasta dried the timber, LaRue said.

But those same winds, along with drought and high temperatures, also serve as a propellant to any fires in the region.

“If you get a fire, it’s like a blowtorch,” he said.

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