More than 10,000 battle major fires throughout California

Here's why Northern California skies are smoky

Smoke over the valley from wildfires throughout the region hovers over Northern California.
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Smoke over the valley from wildfires throughout the region hovers over Northern California.

More than 10,000 firefighters were battling 23 large wildfires statewide, California fire officials said Tuesday.

The Helena Fire in Trinity County was among the most troublesome, with 72 homes destroyed and more than 11,000 acres consumed about five miles northwest of Junction City.

Kelly Wood, a fire information officer, said crews spent Tuesday on strategic burn operations, conducting control burns ahead of the fire to prevent its spread. One such burn was being conducted Tuesday evening in the Junction City area. He said crews also were restoring bulldozer lines constructed in the area during previous wildfires.

Crews have been aided by an inversion layer, but that was lifting Tuesday evening, which could cause the fire to pick up, Wood said. Fire officials also were concerned about potential thunderstorms.

The blaze was 14 percent contained as of Tuesday morning, with 1,500 firefighters working to knock it down. Wood said updated figures on the acreage burned an containment were expected later Tuesday night.

Officials noted that the fire was burning in steep, remote terrain.

The Helena fire erupted Wednesday west of Weaverville along Highway 299 in isolated, forested northwestern California. Cal Fire said this blaze was contributing to the smoke blanketing the Sacramento region.

The Trinity County Sheriff’s Office issued an evacuation order for residents between Helena and Oregon Mountain Summit, the U.S. Forest Service reports. The California Department of Transportation announced Tuesday that Highway 299 would be open intermittently with escorts for east- and westbound through traffic – at 5:30 a.m., 9:30 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., 5:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. – as fire conditions permitted. Wood said vehicles were lined up for about two miles Tuesday evening, waiting for the 5:30 p.m. escort through the fire zone.

An evacuation center has been established at the First Baptist Church in Weaverville. Small animals may be taken to the Trinity County animal shelter and farm animals may be taken to Trinity High School.

In Butte County, Cal Fire said the Ponderosa Fire, which has burned 4,016 acres, was 84 percent contained and had torched 32 residences as of Tuesday evening. Ron Oatman, a Cal Fire spokesman, said there were no new flare-ups Tuesday and crews spent the day putting out hot spots in the interior of the fire area.

That fire started Aug. 29 at Ponderosa Way and Lumpkin Road, east of Lake Oroville. All evacuations orders and warnings issued last week have been lifted, and roads in the area have been reopened.

Meanwhile, the Pleasant Fire at Highway 49 and Pleasant Valley Road in Nevada County was reported fully contained Tuesday afternoon. That blaze started Wednesday and has since torched nearly 400 acres. One structure was destroyed and another damaged.

Outside Yosemite National Park, the wind-fueled Railroad Fire made its way deeper into a grove of 2,700-year-old giant sequoia trees. Officials said the fire had gone through about half the grove, and had not killed any trees.

Giant sequoias are resilient and can withstand low intensity fires. The blaze burned low-level brush and left scorch marks on some big trees that survived, said Cheryl Chipman, a fire information officer.

“They have thick bark and made it through pretty well,” Chipman said.

There are about 100 giant sequoias in the grove, including the roughly 24-story-high Bull Buck sequoia, one of the world’s largest. Fire crews also wrapped 19th-century cabins in shiny, fire-resistant material to protect them from the flames.

The fire threatening the grove was one of several in the area – one of which closed some trails in Yosemite. A road leading to the park’s southern entrance was also closed.

Chipman said fire officials were awaiting an aerial survey Tuesday evening to determine the total acreage burned. Containment was reported at 30 percent, she said, and some residents of the Fish Camp area were able to return to their homes Tuesday.

Approximately 600 structures were still threatened by the fire, Chipman said, and more resources arrived Tuesday to aid in the firefighting.

Mark Glover: 916-321-1184, @markhglover

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