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Thousands Evacuate as Northern California Wildfire Spreads Amid Expected Hot Weather

Photo : AP

Firefighters are battling the Thompson fire, which broke out before noon on Tuesday about 70 miles (110 kilometers) north of Sacramento, near Oroville in Butte County. The blaze has rapidly grown, sending up a massive plume of smoke visible from space and covering more than 5.5 square miles (14 square kilometers) with zero containment as of Wednesday.

To protect homes, firefighters have lined roads while helicopters drop water on the spreading wildfire. The extreme heat in Northern California has exacerbated the situation, forcing at least 26,000 people to evacuate. 

Oroville Mayor David Pittman reported a significant decrease in fire activity by Wednesday afternoon, raising hopes that some residents might soon return home. Firefighters have managed to halt the fire's progress along its southern edge and are now focusing on building containment lines in the challenging northern terrain.

In a related incident, the Grubbs Fire ignited on Wednesday afternoon about 5 miles (8 kilometers) south of Oroville, prompting additional evacuations near Palermo. This fire, like the Thompson fire, remains uncontained. Across California, more than a dozen other wildfires, mostly small, are active, according to Cal Fire. One fire in Simi Valley briefly caused evacuations on Wednesday afternoon.

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The largest wildfire currently is the Basin Fire, which spans nearly 22 square miles (57 square kilometers) of the Sierra National Forest in eastern Fresno County and is 26% contained.

In response to the Thompson fire, a state of emergency was declared in Oroville on Tuesday night, and evacuation centers were established. The evacuation zone was expanded on Wednesday to include foothills and rural areas beyond the city, which has a population of about 20,000. Authorities have banned fireworks in many places, including most of Butte County, due to the high fire risk.

While there has been no official report on property losses, an Associated Press photographer documented the fire destroying three suburban-style homes in Oroville. The fire also ignited grass along the edges of Lake Oroville as gusty winds fanned the flames. Residents watched the blaze from hillsides at night as aircraft made water drops to prevent further spread. Firefighters successfully saved one home while farm animals fled to safety.

The cause of the fire is under investigation. Red flag warnings were in effect when the fire started, indicating critical fire weather conditions with gusty winds and low humidity. Garrett Sjolund, Cal Fire's Butte County unit chief, noted the particularly dry and dense brush in the county this summer, which, combined with any wind, quickly spreads fires. In response, Pacific Gas and Electric implemented targeted power shutoffs to prevent fires from damaged wires.

With hot conditions and potential triple-digit temperatures expected to continue into next week, authorities have issued stern warnings against illegal fireworks use during the Fourth of July holiday. Butte County Sheriff Kory L. Honea urged residents not to cause fires and exacerbate the situation.

The governor's office announced federal funding approval late Tuesday to aid firefighting efforts. Governor Gavin Newsom has activated the State Operations Center to coordinate the state's response, dispatch mutual aid, and support communities facing wildfire and excessive heat threats.

In Southern California, Joshua Tree National Park officials closed Covington Flats on Wednesday due to extreme fire risk. The area, home to significant Joshua tree populations, faces increased danger following spring rains that led to abundant grass, which has now dried. A June 2023 fire previously burned 1.6 square miles (4.14 square kilometers) of Joshua trees and desert tortoise habitat.

July 4, 2024 12:30 p.m. 419

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