Jane Coolidge and her husband Bruce were driving past the town of Weed, California, on Friday when they saw a huge plume of black smoke.
Flames had engulfed a large commercial building and debris hit their truck when it fell onto the highway. Falling material ended up in dry grass and undergrowth, causing fires on both sides of the road.
“It was harrowing,” Coolidge said.
The Mill fire appears to have started near the Roseburg Forest Products property and spread within minutes to nearby homes in the historically black community of Lincoln Heights, Weed Mayor Kim Greene said. It quickly turned into an urban conflagration as flames raged from house to house, the majority of them older wooden structures, she said.
“Wildfire is no longer in the wilderness,” she said. “It’s right within the city limits.”
The commercial structure that caught fire was an old building that once housed a planer and is now used to store spare parts for the Roseburg active veneer plant, which was not involved in the fire, said Rebecca Taylor, communications director for Springfield, Oregon. established wood products company. No operations are taking place in the building and it is unclear whether the fire started there or nearby, she said.
Authorities had not yet determined how many homes were destroyed by Saturday afternoon, but said they were working quickly to assess the damage.
Firefighters reported that 20% of the blaze, which burned 3,921 acres, has brought 20% under control, issued evacuation orders for nearly 4,000 people, and Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency for Siskiyou County. Several injuries were reported, but information on the nature of the injuries and the condition of the injured was not available.
“Most of the Lincoln Heights community is gone,” Greene said Saturday, describing a scene of eerie silence as smoke hung over the smoldering remnants of the neighborhood.
Historically known as “the Quarters,” Lincoln Heights was once home to a thriving black community.
Weed’s black population boomed in the early 1920s when the prospect of jobs at the Long-Bell Lumber Co. attracted black workers from the south who played a vital role in the growth of the community.
Some workers came to Weed directly from Louisiana — their journey had been advanced by the lumber company, which had shut down two of its Louisiana plants — while others took more circuitous migration routes from other parts of the South, according to geographer Geoff Mann’s book “Our Daily.” Bread: Wages, Workers, and the Political Economy of the American West.”
James Langford, a former Weed school teacher who wrote a master’s thesis on the city’s black community, described Weed in a 2010 history as “a segregated residential town, owned by a business.”
In Lincoln Heights, black workers and their families developed their own institutions, including two churches, a cemetery, a hotel, apartment complex and club, according to a National Park Service history.
“It was like going back south,” Langford told a Times reporter in 2004.
By the mid-1920s, an estimated 1,000 black people lived in Weed, accounting for about one-sixth of the city’s population, according to Langford’s 2010 report.
The total population of weeds and that of the historically black enclave have both declined due to the declining timber industry. As of 2020, Weed had a population of 2,662, of which 11% were black, according to census data.
Mayor Greene had been at a community center on Friday when someone ran in and shouted that a fire had started across the street. By the time she reached the parking lot, flames had jumped over Railroad Avenue and ran toward Lincoln Heights, lifting huge clouds of black smoke, she said.
The fire then marched into Lincoln Park, melting some playground equipment but sparing structures and trees, before encircling the green space and setting fire to more homes in the Lake Shastina area, she said.
There are a number of houses and farms between the two communities and it is unclear how they fared. Information was hard to come by, because the city had no electricity, internet or phone lines, Greene said.
Another fire, which started hours later in more remote and rugged woodland about 20 kilometers to the northwest, had set 3,395 hectares on fire and was 5% under control by Saturday afternoon. About 21 people had been ordered to evacuate from the mountain fire, most of them in the Gazelle community, officials said.
Both fires were fueled by gusts of wind, high temperatures, low relative humidity and vegetation parched from the ongoing drought, said Captain Robert Foxworthy, a public information officer with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Scientists have found that this is the driest 22-year period in at least 1200 years and concluded that climate change has exacerbated the severity of the megadrought.
The National Weather Service had issued a red flag warning for Friday due to high winds, which blew up to 35 mph, and very low humidity, which dropped as much as 4% that afternoon, said Sven Nelaimischkies, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Medford. , ore. Weed recorded temperatures of 98 degrees, he added.
“All of that has contributed to some pretty explosive growth,” Foxworthy said.
Activity on the mill’s fire declined overnight until Saturday, when winds eased and conditions cooled, allowing crews to begin putting a line around the fire, he said. The mountain fire, on the other hand, continued to burn actively.
“The two fires have different concerns,” Foxworthy said. “The mill fire is burning in a more populated area. Then the mountain fire is in much steeper and rougher terrain.
Temperatures were expected to drop about 10 degrees on Saturday before warming up again on Sunday and possibly meeting heat advisory criteria by Tuesday, Nelaimischkies said. Dry conditions were expected to continue, but winds would remain much lighter through Sunday, he said.
The fires come amid a difficult summer for rural Northern California’s Siskiyou County. The McKinney fire started in the Klamath National Forest near the Oregon border in late July and quickly grew to be the season’s largest yet, burning more than 60,000 acres, killing four people and destroying 185 buildings.
While the cause has not yet been officially determined, multiple lawsuits filed on behalf of residents allege that the fire was started by PacifiCorp electrical equipment.
Around the same time, thunderstorms sparked a flare of smaller fires across the county, with the largest, the Yeti Fire, burning nearly 8,000 acres and triggering evacuation warnings in the Happy Camp area.
Parts of Siskiyou County were also damaged last year by the lightning-fast lava fire, which burned along the slopes of Mount Shasta east of Weed.
The 2014 Boles fire, which one man eventually pleaded guilty to reckless starting, destroyed more than 150 buildings in Weed, essentially burning down half the city, Greene said.
“We all have some PTSD,” she said. “So if we hear fire, we’ll leave.”