CLEARLAKE OAKS, California — The only force fiercer than a 100-square-mile wildfire was Joe Welz’s impulse to protect his home.
Then came the moment when he relented: Welz turned his back on his home and evacuated.
It wasn’t easy. He was ordered to evacuate Sunday, but he defied that order until Monday, when he grabbed his dog and reluctantly abandoned his home sweet home, he said.
“When you start seeing smoke plumes come up that are severe black, you know they’re in the brush, and they’re not too far away,” Welz said.
“You look at it: Hey, it’s time to go! And when you see flames — when you see flames, it’s really time to leave!”
This homeowner’s dilemma is being shared by more than 13,000 northern Californians who’ve been told to evacuate as the Rocky Fire rampages across almost 105 square miles in Lake, Yolo and Colusa Counties.
“I’m most concerned about everybody’s homes, not just mine — everybody in the community. This is very scary, and it’s the first something like this fire has happened,” said Wellz, a 27-year resident of Spring Valley in Colusa County.
“Thousands of people can lose their homes,” he said.
‘I need to put it in God’s hands’
Welz found shelter at Moose Lodge 2284 in Clearlake Oaks, where tables overflowed with donated food to serve 200 evacuees who spent Monday night there or in their motor homes in the lodge’s parking lot.
Anxieties ran high Tuesday as black smoke rose in the far distance, a reminder of what has upset their lives.
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“If I start getting worked up, I know I need to put it in God’s hands and the hands of the people fighting the fire,” said Madeline Lewek-Franco, another Spring Valley resident. “And if my home goes, it’s not the end of the world.”
As of late Tuesday, the Rocky Fire destroyed 24 homes and 26 outbuildings as it continued to burn for the sixth day, charring 67,000 acres with only 20% containment.
In all, 22 wildfires raged throughout California, where four years of historic drought have made it easy for flames to spread. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency Friday to help gather additional firefighting resources.
The fires have killed one person: Last week, firefighter David Ruhl of Rapid City, South Dakota, lost his life battling the Frog Fire in far northern California’s Modoc National Forest, near Adin.
The U.S. Forest Service said Tuesday that Ruhl — whose body was found the morning after he was reported missing — died of carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation.
With that autopsy now complete, Forest Supervisor Amanda McAdams said, “We are glad we are now able to return Dave home.”
Life at the lodge
Dozens gathered in the Moose Lodge’s parking lot in Clearlake Oaks, 117 miles north of San Francisco.
The lot became an impromptu campground. Some stayed in recreational vehicles and others huddled near their cars.
A woman cried as she sat in a folding chair, looking at the smoke rising from hills on the horizon.
“My heart’s broken. Just broken,” the woman told CNN affiliate KOVR on Monday, withholding her name. “Lived here 13 years and I’ve loved it, but I don’t think I can go through this again,” she said.
The nearly two dozen California wildfires have torched more than 134,000 acres as of Tuesday morning, but the Rocky Fire accounts for almost half of that, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.
The flames feed on drought-parched vegetation that hasn’t seen fire in many years, Cal Fire says.
“This has been a very fast-moving wildfire, with the dry conditions and the weather not really cooperating with us over the past week,” Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant told CNN affiliate KCRA.
More than 2,900 firefighters, 285 engines, four air tankers and 19 helicopters are battling the Rocky Fire, Cal Fire says. Berlant says that particular blaze is unique because of its burn rate, devouring 20,000 acres in about five hours, he said.
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Nearly 10,000 firefighters statewide are battling the flames.
Most of the fires are more than 60% contained, but damage has been substantial in some cases. Fires in Southern California’s San Bernardino County and Northern California’s Alpine County have affected nearly 50,000 acres.
Firefighter loses his own home
At the Moose Lodge, evacuee Raymond Padilla told how authorities persuaded him to leave at 5 a.m. Monday.
He said he was hesitant at first.
“I was told at least three times to get out. I didn’t have a car, and my animals were stuck in the house. And I didn’t want to leave, so I stayed there,” Padilla told CNN affiliate KTXL. “And then I was told for the last time that I’m going to be arrested if I didn’t leave, so I had to leave.”
Even those tasked with fighting the flames suffered losses.
Volunteer firefighter Jeff Brusatori was battling the Fork Complex fires — a set of numerous wildfires in Northern California east of Eureka — when he learned the flames were headed toward his neighborhood late last week.
He tried to call his wife to warn her, but couldn’t get through, he told CNN affiliate KRCR.
“All the cell phones were down … no calls were going through,” Brusatori told KRCR on Monday. “I was able to get a hold of one of my guys on radio that was up here that started evacuating people. I told him go by my house and go tell my wife: Get the cats, get the dogs and what you can and get out.”
Brusatori’s wife got out about five minutes before the flames overtook the home, KRCR reported.
The couple lost everything that was in the home. He said he’ll continue to battle the fire.
“Just trying to deal with these fires first. We’ll deal with (the lost home) later,” he said.
Fighting fires on multiple fronts
Other fires include the Frog Fire, which has burned about 4,200 acres since Thursday. Lower temperatures, higher humidity and clouds helped firefighters push containment to 20%, according to the national fire tracking website InciWeb. The Lake Fire in San Bernardino County burned more than 31,000 acres before it was contained.
Authorities also reported strides in fighting two other fires: the Willow Fire northeast of North Fork in the Sierra National Forest and the Cabin Fire east of Porterville in the Sequoia National Forest.
The 5,700-acre Willow Fire was 70% contained Monday, and an evacuation order for some residents was being lifted.
In the Sequoia National Forest, firefighters reported that rain had helped them establish fire lines against expected growth of the Cabin Fire, which has burned 2,600 acres since mid-July.
Neither the Willow nor the Cabin fires has destroyed any structures, but six people have been injured in the Willow Fire.
Temperatures in Sacramento and other areas of Northern California, where many of the fires are burning, have topped 100 degrees recently.
Lightning has helped fuel the flames. There have been thousands of lightning strikes over the past several days, igniting hundreds of small wildfires in the northern part of the state.
And the accompanying thunderstorms have produced little or no rain, Berlant said.