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Wind-driven Sierra blaze wreaks havoc

COLEVILLE, Calif. — Winds gusting up to 65 mph fanned a Sierra wildfire that forced the evacuation Tuesday of up to 200 people near the California-Nevada line and the closure of a 40-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 395.

Fueled by winds gusting over the ridge tops, the fire tripled in size from an estimated 200 acres to more than 600 acres by late afternoon, said Mark Struble, a spokesman for the Sierra Front Interagency Fire Dispatch Center.

About 50 homes were immediately threatened and another 150 structures were in the area of the fire, he said.

“It is growing. We don’t know exactly what direction it is heading,” Struble said.

“The winds are really swirling. Even tonight the forecast is for sustained winds of 20 to 35 mph with gusts to 55 mph,” he said.

Authorities evacuated the grade school and the high school in Coleville about 8 miles south of the Nevada line Tuesday morning as well as several neighborhoods with as many as 200 residents over a 5-mile stretch from Coleville south to the northwest edge of Walker.

“You can’t really put a safely loaded airtanker or helicopter up in wind gusts to 50 mph. And even if you could, the drop would go blowing off away from the flames. So all you really are doing is putting a crew at risk,” Struble said.

Walker is the town where a C-130A airtanker on contract to fight fires for the U.S. Forest Service crashed while attacking a blaze on June 17, 2002, killing all three crew members.

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