Thousands evacuated from California wildfires

Tens of thousands of people in northern California have been allowed to return to their homes after evacuating as wildfires spread in the region during a heatwave.

Approximately 16,000 people were under evacuation orders and warnings when the Thompson Fire broke out on Tuesday, according to Megan McMann, spokesperson for Butte County Sheriff’s Office, although originally 28,000 was reported by officials.

All evacuations were lifted by 18:00 local time on Thursday (02:00 BST Friday), she said, but hours earlier, new orders were put in place elsewhere in the state.

Dangerously hot weather is expected to continue with temperatures of 118F (47C) forecast in some areas, feeding the state’s 3,000-plus burning wildfires.

The heatwave – expected to last until early next week – has cast uncertainty on efforts to contain multiple wildfires.

No one has died, while 74 structures across the state have been destroyed or damaged from fires this season.

The Thompson Fire, which began on Tuesday, was finally contained by Friday morning, a welcome sign of progress for the crew of nearly 2,000 responders that battled the flames.

At least four people were injured, according to CalFire, although the extent of their injuries is unknown.

Roughly 241 miles (387km) south of the Thompson Fire, the French Fire emerged on Thursday evening, forcing evacuations and road closures in Mariposa County.

Local news reported deputies going door-to-door to notify residents of evacuation orders, as patients at a local hospital were told to shelter in place.

The French Fire continued to spread on Friday, with the latest update showing 15% containment and more than 900 acres burned.

As of Friday morning local time, nearly 12,000 individuals were under evacuation orders or warnings statewide, according to the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

The fire had threatened to overtake the city of Mariposa, a tourist spot popular with visitors to Yosemite National Park.

“It just took off so quick,” Jaime Williams, a spokeswoman for Cal Fire’s Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit, told The Mercury News.

“We were fighting to save our community. The crews worked really hard throughout the night. They were able to hold it.”

The city of Oroville, near where the Thompson fire started, cancelled its Independence Day fireworks, and warned residents to avoid using them and risking another blaze.

“The last thing we need is somebody who’s purchased fireworks from a local fire stand going out and doing something stupid,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said. “Don’t be an idiot, cause a fire and create more problems for us.”

Mr Honea said the area had seen four fires within the last couple of weeks and cautioned that danger was far from over.

“This is a bad fire season,” he added.

Meanwhile, a man has been accused of sparking a fire that triggered evacuations in the Clear Lake area earlier this month.

The man is faces charges related to negligent fire starts. Officials say he was operating a landscaping machine in extreme heat, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.

Fire season started recently in California and usually runs until October. The size and intensity of fires in the state have grown in recent years.

The amount of burned areas in the summer in northern and central California increased five times from 1996 to 2021 compared to the 24 year period before, which scientists attributed to human-caused climate change.

This week, the National Weather Service issued excessive heat and red flag warnings – indicating hot, dry and windy weather – across the state. The agency said “dangerous” temperatures posed a major to extreme risk of heat stress or illnesses.

According to CalFire, around two dozen fires have burned more than 10 acres sparked across the state since the last week of June. The largest one, at nearly 14,000 acres, was in Fresno County.

California governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Butte County to provide resources.

Firefighters work near burned vehicles in Oroville, California Firefighters work near burned vehicles in Oroville, California

[Reuters]

The Thompson fire started in Oroville, about 70 miles north of the state capital Sacramento, on Tuesday. The city is around 20 miles from Paradise, which was devastated in 2018 by the Camp Fire that killed 85 people. Fires hit the region again in the years following.

CalFire spokesman Robert Foxworthy told the BBC that the fire was no longer growing amid lighter wind speeds, but the heat – which was predicted to hit 110F (43C) on Thursday – was the “biggest factor” impacting firefighters.

Two days after the fire broke out, many residents remained unable to return home.

Brittanie Hardie, a Louisiana native and recent California transplant, told the San Francisco Chronicle that she had not been at home when her girlfriend evacuated their flat, and had nothing but the clothes she was wearing.

“I knew wildfires were bad in California, but I didn’t know it was this bad,” Hardie told the newspaper.

Oroville City Council member Shawn Webber posted a video on Facebook on Wednesday showing hillsides smoking on both sides of a road, but thanked firefighters for preventing further destruction.

California’s state parks system said agencies responding to the fire “also have employees with families displaced by these evacuations who are tirelessly assisting the community of Lake Oroville”.