‘It looked like a volcano.’ Residents describe fleeing Wall Fire near Oroville

Homeowner shows dramatic approach of Wall fire flames before he is forced to flee

Butte County resident Rick Wolfe waited to evacuate his home until he could feel the heat from the Wall fire approaching the night of Saturday, July 8, 2017. He shot video of the flames until then.
Up Next
Butte County resident Rick Wolfe waited to evacuate his home until he could feel the heat from the Wall fire approaching the night of Saturday, July 8, 2017. He shot video of the flames until then.

As firefighters continued Monday to corral the Wall Fire burning southeast of Oroville, residents forced from their homes Saturday morning waited anxiously for word on the fate of their neighborhoods and recounted dramatic scenes of fleeing the flames.

“It was scary, 100-foot flames is pretty intense,” said Rick Wolfe, an area resident who only had time to grab some clothes and rush away from the oncoming flames. On Monday, he sat in an evacuation center set up in Oroville at the Church of the Nazarene.

Wolfe said he tried to get as much as possible packed into his car until he began to feel the heat from the flames, which were towering above the trees near his house on Canal Drive

“I could just see the smoke billowing,” Wolfe said. “It looked like a volcano.”

Wolfe was among about 115 people who were waiting at the church Monday to learn when they might be allowed through fire lines to see if their homes are still intact.

Richard Snelson already knew the bad news. At the evacuation parking lot around noon Monday, he pulled off his shirt and sat down in a folding chair next to the two things he has left: a motor home and his black lab, Smiley.

“I lost everything,” Snelson said.

Snelson, 60, said he’s been renting property in the area for the last 25 years. He was watching the fire from View Crest Drive when the flames “exploded” their way. They had minutes to evacuate. He drove the aging motor home down the road then tried to walk back in to get his truck and motorcycles. It was too late, authorities said.

“They said they were going to handcuff me,” he said.

On Monday afternoon, The Bee was able to confirm Snelson’s truck, two motorcycles and ATV survived the fire.

“Fantastic,” he said of the news. He also learned that the property owner’s trailer and 32 Ford were engulfed by the fire.

“I got really, really good news and really, really bad news,” Snelson said.

Laura Meyers got out of the fire zone with her 90-year-old mother, Phyllis Allen, who breathes with the help of an oxygen tank and had to be helped from her home using two canes.

Meyers said residents of the area near Forbestown Road were warned Friday night after the blaze first ignited that they might have to leave, and by Saturday morning they were ordered out as the flames marched forward.

“The fire blew up so fast,” Meyers said. “We watched it crest the ridge two ridges over once, then go back and then crest again. It’s been really scary.”

Meyers was able to round up her pets – two dogs and a cat, as well as a tarantula – and moved the animals to a separate shelter. The spider stayed with them, and Meyers said she didn’t mention its presence to Red Cross staffers.

Barbara and Gary Dutton fled Saturday night at 8 p.m. once they got the order. Until word came that they had to leave, Gary Dutton said he continued barbecuing and watching the smoke from his home on Mount Ida Road.

The couple said they just finished a remodel of the house Friday, and were anxious to know its fate.

“I’d like to drive down the road and see if my house is still there,” Barbara Dutton said.

The church’s parking lot was full Monday of vehicles from evacuees, many of whom appeared elderly and using oxygen tanks.

By Monday afternoon, they still had not heard how much longer they may have to remain evacuated. Some residents who left under an evacuation warning on the western edges of the fire were being allowed back into neighborhoods where homes had not burned, and authorities changed mandatory evacuation orders in other areas to warnings.

Officials could not say when residents would be allowed into areas where homes were damaged or destroyed, but Butte County said it was opening a center by noon Tuesday where residents could seek information about the status of their homes. That center is at the Oroville Municipal Auditorium, 1200 Myers St.

Seventeen structures have been destroyed, another five damaged.

“Residents can come to the Local Assistance Center to learn if their home was damaged by the fire,” the county said in a release. “Residents should bring any form of identification they have available. A form of identification with a photo and the property address would be ideal if it is available.”

Firefighters appeared to be making progress against the fire, which has consumed 5,600 acres of kindling-dry grass and trees and did not appear to grow in size Monday.

The blaze was 35 percent contained – an increase of 10 percent from Sunday night.

The fire’s cause was under investigation as firefighters continued to build lines around the blaze with shovels and bulldozers. From the air, nine helicopters were dousing hot spots with water Monday while air tankers dumped flame retardant.

Damage-evaluation teams will be inspecting burned areas where homes have been turned to cinder.

The Wall Fire broke out Friday afternoon along Chinese Wall Road north of the small town of Bangor, which is southeast of Oroville. Since then, Cal Fire has attacked the blaze with a small army of personnel, roughly 1,600 state and local firefighters.

A total of 4,000 people were evacuated.

Gov. Jerry Brown proclaimed a state of emergency for Butte County on Sunday, and another blaze erupted Monday afternoon southwest of the Wall Fire. The Honcut Fire was reported after 3 p.m. and quickly burned 80 acres before its progress was stopped. That fire was at 85 percent containment late Monday.

Other fires continued to crop up around the state, including the Farad Fire that broke out at 1 p.m. near Interstate 80 and the California-Nevada line. The blaze quickly grew to 500 aces and closed the interstate for a time.

Meanwhile, the Winters Fire in Yolo County, which was the focus of Cal Fire attention late last week, is mostly contained. The fire, which broke out Thursday afternoon southwest of Winters, is reported to have burned 2,269 acres and is 90 percent contained.

Firefighters also were battling large blazes in Southern California. The California National Guard began deploying eight helicopters and two air tankers to help knock back the fires that have forced thousands of people to evacuate and pressed 6,100 firefighters into action.

Acting on a request from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the guard said Monday it was sending three Army Black Hawk and two Air Force Pave Hawk helicopters to assist with fires in Northern California. Another three Black Hawks and two Air Force C-130 tankers are being sent to Southern California.

The helicopters can be used for water drops, medical evacuations and transport, and the air tankers, which are based in the Channel Islands off the coast, can drop 3,000 gallons of fire retardant or water in less than five seconds, the guard said. One drop can cover a quarter-mile area that is 100 feet wide.

The growing Wall Fire in Butte County, for which a state of emergency was issued Sunday, July 9, 2017, forced thousands to evacuate their homes.

Images taken from a camera on Oroville Dam and presented by the University of Nevada Seismology Lab show early stages of the Wall fire in Butte County as the blaze gains strength and intensity on Saturday, July 8, 2017.

The recent rash of wild fires continued on Sunday when the Stone Fire sparked near Santa Margarita and burned 340 acres.

A huge contingency of fire crews, air support and heavy equipment was deployed to a brush fire that started about 2 p.m. Sunday, July 9, 2017, along Highway 58 near Huero Huero Road east of Santa Margarita.

Molly Sullivan: 916-321-1175, @SullivanMollyM Bill Lindelof contributed

Related stories from Sacramento Bee