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California battles unprecedented wildfire, fueled by drought

August 3, 2015 at 6:40 PM EDT
A plume of smoke rises into the air from the Rocky fire near Clearlake, California on August 2, 2015. The fire grew rapidly overnight.

GWEN IFILL: A wildfire swept through parts of Northern California for a sixth day, consuming more than 60,000 acres, 20,000 of them in a five-hour span over the weekend. All of this is occurring as the Golden State, and most of the Western part of the country, deal with drought and an especially dangerous fire season.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s the largest of roughly 20 fires burning throughout drought-stricken California. The so-called Rocky Fire has consumed two dozen homes, threatened hundreds more and put at least 12,000 people under evacuation warnings.

WOMAN: It’s like being in another world. It’s the smells, the embers. I mean, it’s still burning here.

BOY: Doomsday, that’s what it looked like, kind of. It looked like — it looked like a mushroom cloud that came from like a nuclear explosion, kind of.

JEFFREY BROWN: The fire, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, tripled in size over the weekend, to 93 square miles. National Guard helicopters battled the blaze from the air, while nearly 3,000 firefighters fought the flames on the ground.

Cooler, wetter weather helped crews gain ground today, but the big fire is still only 12 percent contained. CalFire spokesman Steve Kaufmann called it unprecedented.

STEVE KAUFMANN, Public Information Officer, CAL FIRE: I have talked to firefighters with 20, 30, 40 years on the job in the fire service, and they have said that this is some of the most extreme fire behavior they have ever seen in their career.

The fuels are so tender out here and they’re so dry, they’re real receptive to fire. And when we do have fire in the vegetation, it seems to move pretty fast, unpredictably, more unpredictably than we have seen before.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, fires in other parts of California have killed one firefighter and injured four others in recent days. Wildfires have also erupted in Oregon and Washington state, fueled by drought and summer heat.

This NASA image shows smoke from several fires rising yesterday over Oregon and Northern California. And as if all that weren’t enough, there have been incidents of private drone aircraft interfering with firefighting planes, and even forcing them out of the air.

STEVE KAUFMANN: And so we just ask people to be smart when they’re using their drones. If you see our aircraft in the air, don’t fly your drones. It’s only going to hamper our operations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Officials in San Bernardino, California, are now offering a $75,000 reward for information on anyone whose drone hinders firefighters.