A three-day-old wildfire continued to burn out of control northwest of Redding in Shasta County on Friday afternoon, forcing continued closure of Interstate 5 for nearly 50 miles and leaving residents of the mountain areas on edge, ready to flee if necessary.
The Delta Fire reportedly had burned 31,325 acres (49 square miles) as of Friday evening, and grew further amid windy conditions during the day, according to U.S. Forest Service and other local reports.
Interstate 5, the West Coast’s main north-south thoroughfare, will be shut at least through Sunday. That has forced some motorists to take hours-long detours on narrow highways and Northern California vacationers to cancel weekend plans in destinations like Ashland, Ore.
The fire ripped onto I-5 Wednesday afternoon, forcing frantic drivers to abandon their vehicles, including several big rigs. Some flames reached 300 feet in height, according to a U.S. Forest Service incident report.
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In one video of the scene, a passenger screams: “Oh my God, I want to go!” as trees catch fire nearby. The AP reported another sobbed in a video, “I can’t breathe. Please, guys, come put it out.”
A Caltrans spokeswoman said one person was injured falling from a truck, but no other injuries were reported at the scene.
The freeway remained closed to through traffic Friday from 10 miles north of Redding at Fawndale Road to 5 miles south of Mount Shasta at Mott Road, according to Caltrans.
Caltrans officials said officials will assess Sunday whether they can begin opening at least a lane in each direction. Crews continue to clear abandoned vehicles and debris from the affected stretch of I-5.
“We have thousands of burned trees we’re estimating that we will need to address,” spokeswoman Denise Yergensen said. “There are some that are going to fall on the highway. They have to come down first.”
The fire has residents of nearby Dunsmuir on edge, amid heavy smoke, said Richard Dinjes, executive director of the city’s chamber of commerce. Officials have issued a warning to residents of potential evacuation, although the fire was about 15 miles away on Friday afternoon.
“People are packing right now, just to be ready in case,” he said.
The fire forced the chamber to cancel its annual State of Jefferson Brewfest for the first time in 26 years, Dinjes said. The brewfest had initially been planned to occur earlier this summer, but was postponed until this week due to the Carr Fire.
Across the state line in Oregon, officials in Ashland reported hazy skies Friday and said the city’s heavy tourist trade has been affected for nearly two months because of fires in the southern area of that state and northern California, including this week’s Delta and Hirz fires.
Some businesses are off 10 to 50 percent this summer, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has canceled 20 performances due to smoke, said Katharine Cato, director of Travel Ashland. Some hotels are filling up now with truckers and other travelers who can’t continue south on I-5.
Cato said city officials already are talking about how to boost tourist trade during other months in the year to compensate for the increasingly serious effects of summer fire season.
“July and August are unpredictable because of fire,” she said. “We have been surrounded by fire ever since 100 lightning strikes on July 15.”
The recommended detour for I-5 motorists, using Highway 299, adds 140 miles of driving. Reports by local media outlets and by CHP Officer Jason Morton on Thursday estimated this detour adds anywhere between three to eight hours of additional drive time.
Mandatory evacuation orders and additional road closures have been in place along I-5 and in Trinity County since Wednesday. An evacuation center has been set up at the Mount Shasta Community Center, at 629 Alder St. Updated information can be found on the Delta Fire’s Inciweb page.
U.S. Forest Service spokesman Chris Losi said Thursday afternoon that about 300 people and 300 structures had been evacuated, including 150 residences.
About 1,500 personnel are assigned to the Delta Fire, according to the latest incident report.
Burning grass, timber and brush, the blaze quickly exploded in size after igniting about 1 p.m. Wednesday near Lakehead and reaching 5,000 acres that night.
The wildfire is considered by fire officials to be human-caused, but further details about the cause were not known as of Friday morning.
Shasta-Trinity National Forest officials are holding a public meeting on the Delta Fire and nearby Hirz Fire at 6 p.m. Friday at the Dunsmuir High School gym, 5805 High School Way in Dunsmuir.
Winds are expected to carry smoke from the Delta and Hirz fires north of Redding and into the western Sacramento Valley, the National Weather Service said Friday.