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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Northern California wildfire burns at least 50 structures and forces thousands to flee

California’s Mill fire tore through Weed, Calif., part of rural Siskiyou County, destroying homes and structures.

By Mandy Feder-Sawyer, Shawn Hubler and Ava Sasani

A wind-whipped fire that erupted near a defunct lumber mill in Northern California on Friday and became a fast-moving inferno has destroyed at least 50 structures, including homes, and prompted the evacuation of thousands of people in rural Siskiyou County, fire authorities said Saturday.

The blaze, named the Mill fire, tore through Weed, a working-class town of about 2,900 that sits roughly 50 miles from the Oregon border, and damaged nearby communities such as Lake Shastina, with a population of about 2,400; Carrick, home to about 140 people; and Edgewood, which contains about 70.

There were no initial reports of fatalities. Fire authorities said three civilians suffered injuries, although their conditions were not immediately known. The blaze had grown to cover 4,200 acres by Saturday night, authorities said, and was 25% contained.

The number of structures destroyed was expected to rise after teams inspected the damage, Chris Anthony, the chief deputy director of Cal Fire, the state’s fire protection agency, said in a briefing Saturday. An update later in the day said more than 130 structures had been affected to some degree.

Lincoln Heights, a neighborhood in Weed, was described by one California Highway Patrol officer in the area as “leveled.”

Other areas were left without power, another factor that led many to evacuate, although authorities said electricity would be restored in some locations by Saturday night.

On Saturday afternoon, Weed appeared virtually empty except for the presence of emergency vehicles. Traffic lights were out, the smell of smoke tinged with chemicals hung in the air and a haze blanketing the area was thick enough to block visibility of the surrounding mountains.

For many residents of the town, fleeing a wildfire is not new. In September 2014, Weed was devastated by the Boles fire, a relatively small but intense blaze that consumed 165 homes and other buildings in the small community. The town is also roughly 30 miles southeast of where the McKinney fire raged this summer and became California’s largest blaze in 2022, killing four people and burning more than 60,000 acres.

Many residents of Siskiyou County have fled to Yreka, a town about 30 miles north of Weed. But even there, signs of the fire were evident, as ashes fluttered down like snowflakes.

At the Black Bear Diner, Bob Noonan and his wife, Loveminda Cidro, a retired couple who have lived in the area for 22 years and had fled, pondered what became of their home. After they had been alerted by a neighbor that they needed to leave, Cidro said that in the rush to get out, she packed randomly, pulling items from the house that did not make sense.

“It was very stressful. I was very nervous, and I was crying when we evacuated,” she said. The couple said they did not expect to be able to return for at least a couple of days.

Jon Heggie, a battalion chief for Cal Fire, said that the first call about the Mill fire came at 12:49 p.m. Friday from a subdivision in Weed, near a property owned by a wood products company, where some older buildings were undergoing demolition. Within two hours, the blaze had grown to some 900 acres and evacuation orders had been issued for Weed and nearby communities. By 7 p.m., the blaze had grown to 2,580 acres, Cal Fire authorities said.

Kimberly Greene, the mayor of Weed, said that she was at the local community center, rebuilt after a 2014 wildfire, when the spouse of a co-worker ran in and reported smoke in the distance.

“By the time we walked outside,” she said Friday, “you could see the flames jumping the street.”

The air was hot and dry, she said, and the wind was “howling.” Greene rushed home and packed her car while fielding reports from fire authorities and from her neighbors.

She said that a number of homes had been destroyed and that the swiftness of the blaze concerned her.

“This one was so fast, I’m worried some people might not have gotten out,” Greene said.

Jeff Ott, a nurse practitioner from Lake Shastina, was notified by two co-workers and the Siskiyou Sheriff’s Department about the fire that was rapidly approaching his backyard.

Ott said he saw a “giant column” of smoke, felt the heat of the blaze and heard a roar like a freight train. He grabbed his computers and guitars and was out of his house and in his car in about two minutes, leaving behind framed posters and flyers of punk rock shows from the ’80s that were irreplaceable, he said.

“My car was covered in ashes,” Ott added. He ended up in a hotel in Yreka and was not sure he had a home to return to — the last he heard, the fire was about 2,500 feet from his house.

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