58,000-acre brush fire impacting I-90

Residents’ homes ‘in God’s hands’ as California firefighters battle blazes

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CLEARLAKE OAKS, California (CNN) — Wildfires like hot, dry weather. Firefighters prefer it cool and wet.

On Tuesday, the weather gods sided with firefighters, as they battled the 100-square-mile Rocky Fire in Northern California.

But on Wednesday, the weather is expected to turn dry again, siding once more with the wildfire, and fire officials are telling some 13,000 evacuated residents to stay away from their homes, as they expect the battle against the flames to continue into next week.

That’s not easy for some.

Defying evacuation call

Joe Welz initially defied Sunday’s evacuation call, and instead stood up to Rocky’s fierceness, trying to protect his home. But on Monday he caved, packed up his dog and left.

“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.

“And when you see flames — when you see flames, it’s really time to leave!”

“This is very scary, and it’s the first time something like this fire has happened,” said Welz, a 27-year resident of Spring Valley in Colusa County.

‘In God’s hands’

Others are taking the danger to their homes in stride.

“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.”

Welz and Lewek-Franco both found shelter at Moose Lodge 2284 in Clearlake Oaks, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, where tables overflowed with donated food to serve 200 evacuees who spent Monday night there or in their motor homes in the impromptu campground in the lodge’s parking lot.

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. “Lived here 13 years and I’ve loved it, but I don’t think I can go through this again.”

Weather as firefighter

A Pacific Ocean weather system dropped temperatures Tuesday, raised humidity and dumped rain in spots, forestry and firefighting agency Cal Fire said. And by the end of the day, some 2,900 firefighters had gotten the Rocky Fire — burning some 50 miles north of the Bay Area — 20% contained.

It has taken 285 engines, four air tankers and 19 helicopters to do it.

A CNN crew observing the perimeter of the 67,000 acres the wildfire has charred didn’t see the towering, angry orange flames that skirted the landscapes in previous days, when it consumed 20,000 acres in just five hours.

Fickle storm clouds

But the weather has sided mostly with the wildfires for the last four years in a historic drought that has blanketed California with parched, combustible brush.

And when it comes to the fires, storm clouds are a mixed blessing. They sometimes bring rain that helps calm the blazes, or they slam down lightning bolts that ignite new flames.

Recently the clouds have delivered more curses than blessings.

Thousands of lightning strikes over the past several days have started small wildfires in the northern part of the state, Cal Fire said. Their effect has greatly outweighed the benefits of the rain.

24 wildfires

The Rocky Fire is the biggest battle for firefighters by far, but just one of 24 against wildfires spread across the state in a worse-than-average wildfire season. It is challenging the wit and grit of nearly 10,000 firefighters and has killed one of them.

Another firefighter got news that his home burned down while he battled a wildfire elsewhere, and six more people were injured in a fire.

But overall the fires have spared people’s lives and health, and the flames are gradually losing the battle. Most of them are more than 60% contained.

The current two dozen blazes range from dozens to thousands of acres in size, and have consumed more than 134,000 acres, but the Rocky Fire alone is responsible for half of it, Cal Fire said.

And it has incinerated the most buildings — 24 residences and 26 sheds, barns or garages.

Nearly 7,000 more homes were still under threat from the flames late Tuesday.

CNN’s Jack Hannah reported from Clearlake Oaks. Ben Brumfield wrote and reported from Atlanta and Michael Martinez wrote and reported from Los Angeles. CNN’s Sonya Hamasaki and Dana Ford also contributed to this report.