Fire-stricken California town has learned to live on edge

WEED, California (AP) – The fire-struck town of Weed in Northern California has long been seen by passersby as a quirky place to stop along Interstate 5 and buy a wry T-shirt, but residents say to have become nervous in recent years due to a new danger: dark skies, swirling ash and flames that run so fast that there is little time to escape.

Their fears erupted again in the last few days when the last California hell burned down homes and buildings and forced evacuation in the small community about 280 miles (451 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco.

Among the thousands of displaced people was Naomi Vogelsang. Her house destroyed, her dog missing, and her 10-year relationship with her boyfriend recently ended: all she could do on Saturday was sit outside a fire evacuation center with $ 20 in her pocket, waiting for a ride to the casino.

“It can’t be worse,” he said.

The day before, the flames broke out from Roseburg Forest Products, which manufactures wood products, in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Weed, where a significant number of homes burned down and residents had to flee for their lives. The fire known as the Mill Fire had spread to more than 6.6 square miles (17 square kilometers) by Saturday evening and was 25 percent contained.

After escaping the fire, 63-year-old Judy Christenson recalled a similar escape 40 years ago when, as a young mother, she had to rush her children out of a burning house. Last summer, a fire forced her to evacuate and leave her pets. Now, Christenson says she always leaves harnesses for her pets so she can grab them in a snap and walk away.

“Whenever that happens, I get really sick,” Christenson said from the front seat of a car at an evacuation center in Yreka as Felix, her orange cat, took a nap in the back seat. “I can’t think clearly.”

Nestled in the shadow of Mount Shasta, a 14,000-foot (4,267-meter) volcano that is the second highest peak in the Cascade Range, grass is no stranger to wildfires.

The strong winds in the area that fan-like flames attracted the founder of the city for a very different reason. Abner Weed, a Civil War soldier who is said to have witnessed the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee before moving to California, chose to set up a sawmill there because the wind would dry the lumber, according to Bob West, a resident throughout. life that is co-owner of Ellie’s Espresso and Bakery, a coffee shop and sandwich shop that contains some historical objects from the city’s past.

The winds make Weed and the surrounding area a dangerous place for fires, which whip out small flames in a frenzy. The grass has seen three major fires since 2014, a period of extreme drought that resulted in the largest and most destructive fires in California’s history.

That drought persists as California heads into what is traditionally the worst of the wildfire season. Scientists say climate change has made the West hotter and drier over the past three decades and will continue to make the climate more extreme and fires more frequent and destructive.

Dominique Mathes, 37, said he has had some close calls with fires since living in Weed. But he doesn’t care to leave.

“It’s a beautiful place,” he said. “Everyone takes risks everywhere, like Florida has hurricanes and floods, Louisiana has tornadoes and everything in between. So, it happens everywhere. Unfortunately there are fires here. ”

Evacuation orders were quickly enforced on Friday for 7,500 people, including West, who is 53 and has lived in Weed since she was 1 year old. He had never had to evacuate due to a fire, but now he has had to do it twice.

“It’s a lot worse than before,” he said. “It affects our community because people leave because they don’t want to rebuild.”

Cal Fire Siskiyou Unit Chief Phil Anzo said crews worked all day and night to secure facilities in Weed and a subdivision to the east known as Carrick Addition. He said about 100 structures were destroyed.

Two people were taken to Mercy Medical Center Mount Shasta. One was in stable condition and the other was transferred to UC Davis Medical Center, which has a burn unit.

“There’s a lot at stake on that Mill Fire,” Anzo said. “There are many communities, many houses there”.

Evacuees and firefighters quickly filled local hotels while others rushed to stay with family and friends outside the evacuation zone.

Vogelsang was not so lucky. She said she slept on a bench in Weed until she managed to find a lift to the evacuation center. He said he spent most of his time crying for Bella, his 10-year-old English bulldog who, despite her best efforts, wouldn’t follow her out of the fire and is lost.

“My dog ​​was my everything,” she said. “I feel like I’ve lost everything that mattered to him.”

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Associated Press reporter Stefanie Dazio contributed from Los Angeles.

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