When the blaze broke out in a Siskiyou County pasture Monday afternoon, the thing that struck residents was the speed at which it blew into an inferno that swept over 100 homes and other structures.
Although the Boles fire is one of the smaller blazes to strike California in this parched summer season, it was one of the most destructive as high wind gusts and dry brush and trees fueled it so quickly that it burned through neighborhoods, churches and part of a timber mill.
“All of a sudden, it seemed like a tornado with the wind, and it just blew toward town,” said Mary Gonzales, a 69-year-old Weed resident who spent the night in a high school gym in Mount Shasta, 12 miles south of the fire.
Gonzales, a 52-year resident of the timber community about 230 miles north of Sacramento, was at a doctor’s appointment when she got an alert on her cellphone that her neighborhood was being evacuated because of a fire. When she arrived at the scene hoping to retrieve her husband’s diabetes medication, a firefighter was moving people out of danger.
“He said, ‘At this point, if you can’t outrun the flames we can’t let you in,’ ” she said, sitting in the hallway outside the gym early Tuesday. By then, she had learned from her daughter that her house and three neighbors’ homes had been spared.
Tiffany Sanders was not that lucky. The 35-year-old college student and mother of five had just gotten up from a nap before class and headed out for a quick bite. “Seven minutes later, I came back and the entire side of the hill was up in flames,” she said. “By the time I got to my house, which takes 30 seconds, maybe a minute, I could see the flames coming over the hill. “It was like they were just walking down the street. They were just politely coming down the street.”
Sanders rushed to Weed High School to get her 14-year-old daughter, and found her and other students assembled outside by the baseball field.
“I rushed in to get her, and as we were leaving the flames were coming down the hill,” she said. “There were flames one side of us, and somehow a part of a tree was on the ground burning so the flames were on both sides as we started coming down.”
Sanders picked up two of her daughter’s friends, then sped home to grab a phone charger and a stuffed bunny that belonged to her late son. Then it was off to a shelter in Yreka with four of her children, and a night on a cot that ended when her landlord called to tell her the house burned to the ground with all her belongings, including her college textbooks.
“I lived there for four years, it was the longest I had ever lived anywhere,” she said. “I lost everything.”
But, she added, she grabbed what mattered most. “I grabbed my children, that’s my focus,” she said.
Despite the ferocity of the fire, no one was seriously injured in the blaze.
By early Tuesday evening, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protectionsaid the fire had covered 375 acres and was 25 percent contained.
Initial reports painted a scene of devastation in Weed and the surrounding area of about 6,000 people. But fire damage was limited to hilly neighborhoods outside Weed’s main drag, which is lined with gas stations, restaurants and a shop specializing in “I Love Weed” T-shirts for passers-by.
Flames destroyed two churches that sat across the street from each other in one neighborhood, as well as a building at the Roseburg Forest Products timber mill. A pile of sawdust also caught fire, but there did not appear to be major damage to the main structure.
There was no official damage estimate Tuesday or a count of destroyed homes. State emergency officials announced the federal government had agreed to fund 75 percent of the firefighting costs, a tool California officials have employed previously this fire season.
More than 1,000 firefighters and seven helicopters were deployed to fight the blaze, which closed Interstate 5 at one point Monday. Most of Tuesday’s efforts were aimed at putting out hot spots, especially ones that sparked new flames or plumes of smoke as the winds picked up in the afternoon.
At the height of the evacuation, officials said as many as 6,000 people had been displaced and about 1,500 overnight. Most found shelter with friends, relatives or in area motels. Only 25 spent the night at the shelter in Mount Shasta, and only 70 were at the Yreka shelter Tuesday morning.
One evacuee, Robert Linton of Mesa, Ariz., said he and his wife had been camping out in the woods with their belongings when the word came to evacuate.
They left everything behind they had brought with them for a move to Washington state, except their dog and two cats.
Linton said he rode his three-wheeled bike from outside Weed to the Mount Shasta shelter, while his wife, Angela Mayberry, got a ride. “We wanted to stay in Weed, but is there a Weed left?” Mayberry asked Tuesday morning.
In fact, the town was bustling as insurance claims adjusters, state emergency officials and more firefighters poured in to offer help.
The Rev. Alonzo Greene spent much of the day standing in the street near City Hall, not far from where the Holy Family Catholic Church and the Grace Presbyterian Church had both burned. Greene, pastor at Mount Shasta Baptist Church, said he spent Monday helping others get away from the fire. He added that some of his parishioners had lost homes.
“When I came home we were being evacuated, and I tried to help a neighbor in a wheelchair and the elderly to get out,” he said.
Greene, 50, a Weed native, said he wanted to spend time Tuesday seeing if parishioners at the burned churches needed help. The Catholic church served 200 to 300 families and officials announced a fundraising effort to help anyone affected by the fire. Donations can be made through the North Valley Catholic Social Services at www.nvcss.org. Checks also may be mailed to the agency at 2400 Washington Ave., Redding, CA 96001.
Some residents tried to hold out and did not want to leave their homes behind, but most were convinced by law enforcement and fire officials that they had to go.
Kim Lowry had just gotten up from a nap when she heard warnings of a fire. “I looked out the curtains and all I could see was flames,” said Lowry, 38, a student at College of the Siskiyous. “I think it’s one of the most scariest experiences in my life.”
Her husband, Jeff, tried to stay and defend their home with a garden hose, but soon was convinced of the need to go. “They told him if he didn’t leave they’d put him in handcuffs,” said Lowry, whose home escaped unscathed.
Cal Fire said the cause of the fire remained under investigation, although the most popular story making the rounds Tuesday was that a transient cooking a hot dog was responsible.
Helicopters continued to drop water on hot spots throughout the area, especially in the Angel Valley section of town, where entire blocks of homes were incinerated.
Throughout the town, residents consoled each other over their losses or marveled at their luck.
Near Weed High School, not far from where residents say the fire began, Vincent Delgado sat in the shade of a tree in front of the home he shares with his daughter and son-in-law.
Delgado, 86, perched on a white plastic chair and sporting a San Francisco Giants cap, said he rode out the fire rather than evacuate when ordered. As firefighters battled the blaze in the forest directly across the street, Delgado placed a garden hose and sprinkler on the roof and settled in as the fire approached.
“It got a little hairy there when the fire crossed the road,” Delgado said. “I didn’t think I was going to make it.”
But he and the house survived without a scratch. The one next door burned to its foundation.