WEED, Calif. — Despite warnings about the dangers of wildfires and drought-parched forests, the inferno that swirled through the California lumber town of Weed caught the entire community off guard.
In just a few hours, wind-driven flames destroyed or damaged 100 homes, the saw mill and a church. At times, the fire moved so fast that residents had only a few minutes to get out of the way.
On Tuesday, the “Weed Like To Welcome You” town sign still stood, but nothing else was normal as stunned residents assessed the damage, took stock of what they lost and gave thanks for what was saved.
“At the peak, essentially the entire town was evacuated,” state fire spokesman Robert Foxworthy said.
Disastrous as it was for the community of 3,000 people, daybreak brought gratitude and relief that there were no reports of death or even serious injuries.
The intense blaze erupted Monday south of Weed. Elsewhere in the state, hundreds of firefighters battled about a dozen other persistent blazes.
The cause of the Weed fire is still under investigation. Winds gusting up to 40 mph pushed the flames into town, where they quickly chewed through a hillside neighborhood.
“It went through here so fast it was unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like this,” Jim Taylor, a retired butcher who has lived in the town for 30 years said Tuesday. “I’m not a real religious person, but somebody was looking out for me.”
Taylor said fire bombers dropped retardant over his house. As his home and his deck furniture turned pink from the retardant, another house nearby erupted into flames. Across the street, pine and oak trees were burned to a crisp, and small flames and smoke drifted up from chunky embers.
The town and the forest that surrounds it were a tinderbox this summer after three years of drought. And Weed’s winds are notorious. The steady breezes were what attracted town founder Abner Weed to build his lumber business there in 1897, after he realized that wood dried more quickly when fanned by nature.
The town’s saw mill, once the world’s largest, was among the structures damaged in the blaze.
“Once the fire kicked off, you had wind driving it from the south, it got into the crowns of trees and then it was moving extremely quickly from structure to structure, block to block,” state fire spokesman Dennis Mathisen said.
On Tuesday, chimneys were the only thing still standing in the rubble, and broken pipes spurted water over the blackened landscape. The remnants of the Holy Family Catholic Church were still smoldering, its metal girders twisted on the ground.
“I mean it was devastating,” said Maureen Campbell, the church’s music minister who was baptized, confirmed and married at the church, along with her children. She lost her home to the fire.
“The house up there is no big deal. It can be rebuilt,” she said. “But this is my family church, you know? It’s much more endearing to me.”
Tasha Davis, 30, said she was given two minutes to grab what she could from her apartment and evacuate.
“We then packed my car and sat on the road and just watched everything burn,” she said Tuesday in an email from Mount Shasta, where she spent the night with her family.
Fire crews took advantage of calmer winds and firefighting aircraft Tuesday, gaining control in and around Weed. Flames still threatened in other parts of California.
In Oakhurst, a foothill community south of Yosemite National Park, a fire that had burned 320 acres was 40 percent contained. About 600 residents from 200 homes remained evacuated, Madera County sheriff’s spokeswoman Erica Stuart said.
Farther north, a wildfire about 60 miles east of Sacramento forced the evacuation of 133 homes. El Dorado County sheriff’s officials said residents of an additional 406 homes were being told to prepare to flee.
More than 1,500 firefighters battled the blaze, which started in a remote area Saturday but exploded Sunday when it reached a canyon of thick, dry brush. It grew rapidly and had burned through more than 18 square miles as of Tuesday morning. It was only 5 percent contained.
More than 4,000 wildfires have burned in California this year.
Associated Press writers Terry Collins in San Francisco, Raquel Dillon in Weed, Alina Hartounian in Phoenix and Robert Jablon and Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.