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Hundreds flee Calif. fire as heat wave settles in

Sparks fly off powerlines engulfed by smoke from a wildfire north of Sacramento on Monday. Powerlines in parts of California are threatened not only by the fires but by a heat wave testing the grid's ability to deliver.
Sparks fly off powerlines engulfed by smoke from a wildfire north of Sacramento on Monday. Powerlines in parts of California are threatened not only by the fires but by a heat wave testing the grid's ability to deliver.Kari Greer / NIFC
/ Source: NBC, and news services

With California on edge as a heat wave threatened to undermine firefighting efforts, hundreds of people north of the state capital fled their homes in the middle of the night when a fire suddenly shifted direction.

Some 800 to 1,000 people fled before dawn in and around the town of Concow, about 90 miles north of Sacramento, Cal Fire spokeswoman Cheri Patterson told NBC News.

The fire shifted after winds late Monday started gusting up to 30 mph, with sustained high temperatures and low relative humidity.

"Everything we thought could go wrong yesterday did go wrong," Patterson said.

The residents had only been back in their homes for three days, having had to earlier flee for up to a week.

A 15-square-mile fire threatening the rural town is one of 30 blazes burning for weeks there.

"Now you're in a hell of a fire fight," said Todd Simmons, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Temperatures soar
Temperatures in that area topped 100 on Monday. Sacramento was expected to reach 107 on Tuesday, while Modesto should see 110. Air quality was worsening due to the fires, and was listed as unhealthy for vulnerable groups.

The heat wave raised not only the fire danger, but also concerns about heat illness among firefighters worn down by the long fight against blazes that have consumed more than 985 square miles in California since late June.

"We do have a lot of fatigue because of the low numbers of resources in the state," said Thom Walsh, a Forest Service resource unit leader.

Crews took rest breaks in refrigerated trailers with bunk beds before returning to the field, but heat stroke was a worry, Walsh said.

The agency that monitors the state’s power grid said peak energy demand could approach the record set in July 2006, and it asked customers to reduce their late-afternoon power consumption.

Officials issued an "immediate threat evacuation advisory" for Concow at 3:20 a.m., noting that about 300 homes are threatened. Two homes have been destroyed, and 10 firefighters have suffered minor injuries.

The fire, now being pushed southwest by winds blowing from the northeast, is part of the Butte Lightning Complex, a system of fires that have burned 30,000 acres since June 21.

On Monday, the return of some residents to their homes marked progress against the siege of wildfires across the state, but forecasters warned that weather is turning the advantage back in favor of the flames.

"A high pressure system is setting up over the entire West," Mike Smith, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento said Monday. "So in addition to the very warm temperatures we're getting, we'll also be getting a little bit of offshore wind over the next couple of days, which keeps the moist marine air from coming inland."

Three other major fires
The turn toward hot and drier weather comes as three major forest blazes — a blaze above the city of Goleta west of Santa Barbara, another 150 miles to the northwest at Big Sur and a third fire in the southern Sierra Nevada — are all less than half contained.

Those fires, considered the most dangerous, were among more than 300 still uncontained from some 1,780 that have scorched more than 960 square miles of California in two weeks. Most were started by lightning strikes, but several are believed to have been human-caused.

Some 100 structures statewide have been destroyed. One firefighter died of a heart attack.

Although officials said the Big Sur fire was still considered very active, the U.S. Forest Service lifted a mandatory evacuation order Tuesday morning for a stretch of about 25 miles along the Pacific Coast Highway. That stretch had been included in a 31-mile section closed late last month as the huge blaze in the Los Padres National Forest crept toward the coast.

Officials, however, cautioned that the lifted evacuation orders did not mean conditions had drastically improved.

"They still have an awful lot of active fire there. ... There were 2,500 residences still threatened," said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Juanita Freel. She added that officials were trying to be sensitive to residents' needs to check on their properties.

The 15-square-mile fire near Goleta was 35 percent contained Tuesday, mostly on its southern side near neighborhoods. More than 2,000 residents were able to return home.

"We recognize that the west end is problematic," Goleta Mayor Michael Bennett said. "But the north and the northeast corner will be contained soon and then we can maybe take a deep breath and relax."

Some mandatory evacuation orders and warnings to be ready to leave remained in effect for scattered homes on the fire's growing western flank on the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Roger Aceves, Goleta's mayor pro tem, said residents were immensely grateful to firefighters, who in some instances beat back flames from front doors. But they were still concerned that the fire could whip up again." We know what can happen," Aceves said. "This is brush that hasn't burned since 1955."

Five fresh "hot shot" crews from Arizona and New Mexico, totaling 100 firefighters, were brought in Monday to the region about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

About 36,000 customers in Santa Barbara County lost power around 8 p.m., said Southern California Edison spokeswoman Nancy Williams. Nearly all had their power restored within an hour, she said. It was at least the sixth straight day that transmission lines have been affected by flames and smoke.

Officials for the 125-square-mile blaze near Big Sur and the 41-square-mile fire in the Sequoia National Forest east of Bakersfield said those blazes won't be controlled for at least another two weeks.

The fire near Big Sur, was 18 percent contained and raging through the remote Ventana Wilderness where difficult access made it hard to build containment lines, said Jim Turner, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

Boy Scout camp saved
A mandatory evacuation remained in effect Monday for all residents of Big Sur. Firefighters were struggling to widen fire lines near Highway 1 and residential areas to between 300 feet and a quarter mile, Turner said.

Crews secured a Boy Scout camp Monday by burning out brush between the buildings and the wildfire's edge and were setting controlled fires elsewhere to halt the blaze's march, the Forest Service said.

The fire in the southern Sierra Nevada was 26 percent encircled. Unexpected winds pushed it on several flanks Monday, causing flames to jump western containment lines and run up Brown Peak. Air tankers and helicopters dumped flame retardant.

"The steep, challenging terrain makes it tough to work directly," said Bob Kurilla, fire spokesman. "It will take a little while, but we're making progress."