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The following story by Jim Wasserman of the Associated Press is augmented by on the scene reports from Pat Ratliff of The Tri-County Courier. Ratliff’s contributions are in italics.

By JIM WASSERMAN, Associated Press Writer

Town of French Gulch, burned completely around
© Pat Ratliff
Forest fire burns over small town
August 18, 2004 edition The Tri-County Courier

FRENCH GULCH, Calif. - A growing wildfire that tore through this old mining town in the mountains 15 miles northwest of Redding headed into rugged terrain filled with open mine shafts and rattlesnakes Monday, posing new challenges for the nearly 1,950 firefighters trying to contain the blaze.

The 9,010-acre fire that destroyed 22 homes and two commercial buildings, including the historic International Order of Odd Fellows Hall, was only 10 percent contained as it moved north into heavily timbered canyons dotted with once-thriving silver and gold mines, said Dottie Cary of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“What’s hampering us now is the topography,” Cary said. “With the rattlesnakes, it adds to the problems.”

Crews were working to contain the blaze within a hand- and bulldozer-dug line and some firefighters were setting backfires to deprive the fire of fuel. Some trucks were protecting individual homes.

Smoke from the fire overnight blanketed the picturesque town where flames took a haphazard path, torching some homes and skipping others. Firefighters saved several buildings, including a church, post office, elementary school, hotel “and, of course, the bar,” Cary said.

“I couldn’t believe that any part of that town was left,” Ratliff said. “The fire hit several places in town, with no rhyme or reason to it, and the hills around the town were laid bare.”

The evacuated town was eerily quiet with little activity save for the electric crews stringing power lines. More than 300 residents were ordered to leave, but not all abandoned their homes.

Those evacuated were still being kept out of the town, but Sgt. Janet Breshears of the Shasta County sheriff’s department said residents might be allowed back Monday afternoon.

Wes Lusk, 66, a French Gulch resident for four years, drove back from Bend, Ore., Sunday morning when he heard about the blaze.

“The message I got was, ‘I think your house burned down.’ That’s a heck of a thing to hear when you’re 300 miles away,” Lusk said Sunday. He was relieved to learn that his house hadn’t been damaged. “It’s a heck of a big load off you.”

Other residents were frustrated because they didn’t know the fate of their homes. “There’s nothing confirmed or denied. That’s the worst part of it,” said 43-year-old Dana Lord.

Fewer than a dozen people stayed overnight at an American Red Cross shelter at Shasta College.

“It is rugged country, deep valleys and tall ridges are everywhere,” Ratliff said. “The country was making the firefighting difficult. Except for the fact the countryside was burning up, it would be a really nice place to spend some time. But you can tell that nobody has touched that timber in years — there was dead fuel everywhere.”

One lane of traffic was opened up Monday on state Highway 299.

The blaze broke out early Saturday afternoon about 19 miles west of Redding, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Fueled by winds, the fire threatened another 150 homes and 10 commercial buildings.

“I heard a report on the fire late Saturday, so I headed out Sunday,” Ratliff said. “When I got there all the roads were closed, but a young firefighter escorted me into the command center. We were dodging fire the whole way in. I was kinda nervous, but that guy was having the time of his life.

“The command center was set up out in the middle of nowhere, in a big field surrounded by forest. All the fire bosses were doing the fire boss thing — spreading maps on truck hoods and throwing out ideas about what the fire might do next when I saw flames crest a ridge above us.

“We all watched as the fire moved down the ridge towards us,” Ratliff said. “I kept taking pictures, and all of a sudden a fire started out in the middle of the field. They got right on it and put it out, but I think that’s what the fire bosses were worried about, I mean, that the fire would keep spotting out in front of itself.”

The fire’s cause was still under investigation. There were no injuries reported among the firefighters and residents.

“It started on top of one of the ridges out there and spread every direction,” Ratliff said. “They are pretty sure it was lightning, but the official answer won’t be for awhile, they said.”

Nearly 1,950 firefighters, including about 400 state prison inmates, worked to contain the blaze, Cary said.

Many of those were transferred from the so-called Bear fire that began Wednesday south of Shasta Lake when a lawnmower struck a rock in dry grass, sparking a blaze that burned 10,484 acres, destroyed 80 homes, 30 outbuildings and 10 vehicles before it was contained Monday morning, Cary said.

Officials estimated that the cost of fighting that fire would top $1.8 million.





Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM  Pacific

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