The largest of California’s 22 wildfires was burning its way toward their homes, and about all they could do was sit on lawn chairs from a distance and watch.
Dozens gathered at a Moose lodge’s parking lot in Northern California’s Clearlake Oaks community northwest of Sacramento, just a small fraction of the more than 13,000 people who’d been told to evacuate as the Rocky Fire approached.
The lot was 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, according to state fire officials.
But the Rocky Fire accounts for almost half of that, having consumed 65,000 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.
The flames are feeding 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.
The fire, which began July 29 and is in Lake, Yolo and Colusa counties, was 12% contained and had destroyed 50 buildings, including 24 homes, the agency said.
More than 2,900 firefighters, 285 engines, four air tankers and 19 helicopters are involved in that fight, Cal Fire says.
Compared with the state’s top 20 deadliest fires, which have burned 100,000 acres or more of land, “this fire does not compare,” spokesman Berlant told CNN.
But the fire is unique because of the rate it has burned. It chewed through 20,000 acres in about five hours, he said.
Across the state, nearly 10,000 firefighters are working on 21 fires, officials say.
Firefighter loses his own home
Cal Fire says 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.
At the Moose lodge parking lot in Clearlake Oaks, evacuee Raymond Padilla told of how authorities persuaded him to leave at 5 a.m. Monday.
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 that 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.
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.
California’s record-setting drought has “turned much of the state into a tinderbox,” Gov. Jerry Brown said.
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.
Brown declared a state of emergency Friday, mobilizing the National Guard to support the disaster response.
The U.S. Forest Service said David Ruhl, a father of two from Rapid City, South Dakota, died fighting the Frog Fire in Northern California’s Modoc National Forest near Adin.
Rescuers found Ruhl’s body Friday morning, the Forest Service said. His death remains under investigation.