WEED, Calif. (AP) — Two people have died in a fire that engulfed a northern California town, Siskiyou County Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue said.
LaRue shared the news of the deaths Sunday afternoon during a community meeting held at an elementary school north of Weed, the northern California rural community charred by one of California’s last wildfires. He did not immediately provide the names or other details, including the ages or genders, of the two deceased.
“There’s no easy way to say it” he said before asking for a minute of silence.
LaRue and other officials acknowledged the uncertainties facing the community, such as when people would be allowed to return to their homes and power would be restored. Around 1,000 people were still under evacuation orders on Sunday as firefighters worked to contain the blaze that erupted out of control on Friday at the start of the holiday weekend.
The blaze, known as the Mill Fire, had not spread since Saturday morning, covering about 6.6 square miles (17 square kilometers) with 25% containment, according to Cal Fire. But the nearby Mountain Fire grew on Sunday, officials said. It also started on Friday, but in a less populated area. More than 300 people were under evacuation orders.
Power outages, smoky skies and uncertainty about what the day would bring left a sense of emptiness around the town of Weed the morning after evacuation orders were lifted for thousands of other residents.
“It’s eerily quiet” said Susan Tavalero, a councilwoman who was driving to a meeting with firefighters.
She was joined by Mayor Kim Greene, and the two hoped to get more details on the number of homes lost. A total of 132 structures were destroyed or damaged, fire officials said Sunday, though it was unclear whether they were homes, businesses or other buildings.
Three people were injured, according to Cal Fire, but no further details were available. Two people were taken to Mercy Medical Center Mount Shasta, Cal Fire Siskiyou Unit Chief Phil Anzo said Saturday. One was in stable condition and the other was transferred to UC Davis Medical Center, which has a burn unit. It is unclear whether those injuries were related to the deaths reported on Sunday.
Weed, home to fewer than 3,000 people about 280 miles (451 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco, has long been considered by passers-by as a fancy place to stop along Interstate 5. But the city, nestled in the shadow of Mount Shasta, is no stranger to wildfires.
Phil Anzo, Cal Fire’s Siskiyou Unit Chief, acknowledged that fires have taken their toll on the rural area in recent years.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of fires in this community, we’ve seen a lot of fires in this county, and we’ve suffered a lot of devastation,” Anzo said.
Dominique Mathes, 37, said he had had close calls with wildfires since living in Weed. Although the risk of fire is more and more frequent, he is not interested in leaving.
“It is a beautiful place,” he said. “Everyone has risks everywhere, like Florida has hurricanes and floods, Louisiana has tornadoes and all that. So it happens everywhere. Unfortunately here, it’s the fires.
The winds make Weed and surrounding areas a dangerous place for wildfires, whipping small flames into a frenzy. Weed has seen three major fires since 2014, a period of extreme drought that resulted in the largest and most destructive blazes in California history.
This drought persists as California heads into what is traditionally the worst of the fire season. Scientists say climate change has made the West hotter and drier over the past three decades and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
Crews battled the blazes as much of the state baked in a heatwave over Labor Day weekend, with temperatures expected to top 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) in Los Angeles, unusually hot weather for Southern California. Temperatures were expected to be even warmer in the Central Valley all the way to the capital Sacramento.
The California Independent System Operator has released its fifth “flexible alert”, a plea for people to use their air conditioners and other appliances sparingly from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. to protect the power grid.