REDDING, Calif. (AP) — Wildfires fueled by bone-dry brush and timber surged through Northern California forests on Friday, burning several homes and forcing thousands to flee mountain communities even as authorities prepared for a hot, crowded Fourth of July weekend that could bring the threat of new blazes.
Three wildfires near the towering Mount Shasta volcano an hour’s drive from the Oregon border had burned around 50 square miles of land — a relatively small figure compared to sweeping, deadly fires of years past that blackened thousands of square miles.
But the blazes weren’t anywhere near being surrounded as they continued to threaten homes in nearby areas.
“It is very hot and dry,” said Suzi Johnson, a Shasta-Trinity National Forest spokeswoman for the Salt Fire, which broke out Wednesday and grew to 7 square miles (18 square kilometers), shutting several lanes of Interstate 5 and prompting evacuation orders for some roads in Lakehead, an unincorporated community of around 700 people.
To the north, the Lava Fire burning partly on the flanks of Mount Shasta grew to nearly 31 square miles (80 square kilometers) and was 27% contained. Evacuation orders for some 3,500 people in or near the city of Weed remained in effect.
The steep, rocky terrain challenged nearly 1,300 firefighters battling the blaze, which was ignited by lightning last week.
To the northeast, the Tennant Fire that broke out Monday in the Klamath National Forest and forced evacuations grew to about 15 square miles (38 square kilometers). The fire was expected to advance north toward Oregon, and its cause was being investigated.
The blazes erupted during an extraordinary heat wave that stretched from the upper reaches of California and broke temperature records in the Pacific Northwest. Temperatures in the Mount Shasta area were expected to reach nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) over the weekend, making conditions even tougher for firefighters who already are dealing with rugged terrain.
California also sweltered last week in heat that was blamed on a dome of high pressure that covered the U.S. West.
Arizona, New Mexico and Utah have been forced to battle wildfires and California is bracing for what some experts fear will be one of its worst fire seasons yet. Much of the state is in the midst of a drought that has dried up vegetation and increased fire danger. Climate change has been predicted to make for a longer fire season and fiercer blazes.
Last year, wildfires scorched more than 6,562 square miles (17,000 square kilometers) of land, the most in its recorded history. And just three years ago, a fire in Butte County in Northern California killed 85 people and largely destroyed the town of Paradise.
This year, many of California’s national parks have restrictions on campfires, cooking and smoking because of fire risks in the hot, dry summer. The parks are bracing for large crowds over the holiday weekend.
Fire authorities throughout California also have stepped up campaigns urging people not to use fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July, citing both the explosive dangers and the threat of wildfires in the withering conditions.
“The fuels are bone dry,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said. “We are extremely concerned about the use of fireworks of all kinds.”