Clayton Fire: Wildfire drives out thousands in Northern California, state of emergency declared

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A fast-moving Northern California wildfire has destroyed more than 175 structures and forced thousands to flee an area where drought conditions and high temperatures are making firefighting difficult.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant said Monday that the Clayton Fire in Lower Lake, about 90 miles north of San Francisco, has scorched nearly 5 square miles. 

The fire reached Main Street in Lower Lake on Sunday and burned the post office, a winery, a Habitat for Humanity office and several businesses as thick, black smoke loomed over the small downtown strip.

California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Lake County due to the fire on Monday afternoon. A state of emergency was also declared in San Luis Obispo County as the blaze from the Chimney Fire has destroyed 12 structures, damaged 20 and threatens 200 more. 

Staff at a hospital in Clearlake, a neighboring town of about 15,000, rushed to transfer 16 patients to another hospital and firefighters carried goats and other animals to safety as homes burned around them.

The blaze was one of 11 large wildfires in California, where high temperatures and parched conditions brought on by a five-year drought raised the fire danger. In central California, a day-old wildfire burned 20 structures and threatened 150 homes.

Fire Tracker: Clayton Fire in Lake County

The Lower Lake fire broke out Saturday afternoon and exploded to nearly 5 square miles as it fed on bone-dry vegetation. Firefighters struggled to get a handle on the largely out-of-control blaze in 100-degree heat and windy conditions.

Officials confirmed 10 homes burned, although witnesses said they could see more. Residents thinking conditions were calm earlier in the day went on errands in town and came back to roaring flames and smoke. Some used hoses or water from their pools to try to protect their houses.

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Rick Davis, 40, told the San Francisco Chronicle that he went to lunch in Lower Lake and rushed home when he heard the fire exploded. He used a hose to wet down his roof.

"I'm just scared," he said. "The wind can just change."

Nearby, Garrett Reed, 43, made similar preparations.

"If I see embers and ash rain down, I will turn the sprinklers on the roof and get out," he told the newspaper. "But this is my grandfather's house, and I'm not going to lose it."

Phaedra Phelps had the same thought after hearing the flames roared to life and rushed back from the store Sunday.

"My daddy bought this house for me 18 years ago," Phelps told the Press Democrat newspaper in Santa Rosa. "I'm staying here. This is my home. Unless my home is on fire, I'm not going anywhere."

The fire created its own weather pattern and shifted northward into Lower Lake on Sunday afternoon, said Suzie Blankenship, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

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Tragically, the burned Habitat for Humanity office had been raising money to help rebuild homes destroyed by one of the state's most destructive blazes nearly a year ago.

"Emotions are still incredibly raw from the Valley Fire," state Sen. Mike McGuire said about last year's wildfire, which killed four people and destroyed more than 1,300 homes. "I don't think any of us thought we'd be back where we are tonight."

Lt. Doug Pittman, a Marin County sheriff's spokesman who was working on behalf of Cal Fire, said residents fled their homes very quickly this weekend.

"They've seen it before," Pittman told the Chronicle.

In central California, similar conditions led the wildfire near Lake Nacimiento, about 180 miles northwest of Los Angeles, to explode from 2 to nearly 7 square miles Sunday, Cal Fire spokesman Bennet Milloy said. The blaze shifted north toward the lake, leading authorities to evacuate some residents by boat.

In Southern California, forecasters warned of high fire danger due to a heat wave and gusty winds. Temperatures reached triple digits in numerous places, stoking an increased risk of wildfires across the mountains of Ventura and Los Angeles counties through at least Wednesday, the National Weather Service said.

This story has been updated.

With contributions from KPCC Staff

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