California Town of 2,700 Warned Ahead of Explosive Wildfire

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By Phil Helsel

A California town of around 2,700 people was told to prepare to evacuate as a raging wildfire spurred on by dry conditions grew Friday, fire officials said.

The town of San Andreas about 60 miles southeast of Sacramento was told to be prepared to flee if the so-called Butte Fire, which swelled to nearly 65,000 acres Friday, approaches, the California Department of Fire and Forestry Protection said.

The department, also known as Cal Fire, initially said the town was under a mandatory evacuation order, but a short time later lifted the order and asked residents to be prepared.

The fire changed direction after the order was put out, Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant told The Associated Press. "The fire was quickly approaching the community," he said.

A firefighter works to save a residence as the Butte fire burns in San Andreas, California on Sept. 11, 2015.NOAH BERGER / Reuters

California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency Friday for Amador and Calaveras counties, where the Butte Fire is located.

Six homes have been destroyed and 6,400 structures are threatened, Cal Fire said.

The Butte Fire broke out at 2:26 p.m. Wednesday east of Jackson and quickly spread. It was just over 100 acres Wednesday and grew to more than 14,500 acres by that evening before more than doubling in size to 32,000 acres by Friday morning. The fire was 5 percent contained Friday, Cal Fire said.

The department said Friday that that dry conditions were contributing to "unprecedented fire conditions and growth."

Steep terrain was causing the fire to spread rapidly, as the heat from flames warms areas above the fire and makes it more likely to ignite, Cal Fire Capt. Josh Rubinstein said. The fire was expanding in all directions, but was moving rapidly to the south, he said.

"The topography makes fighting the fire on the ground extremely difficult," Rubinstein said. "We have over 20 aircraft flying from sunup to sundown."

California is in its fourth year of a historic drought, creating dry conditions that make large parts of the state more susceptible to wildfires. High temperatures haven’t helped — much of California was in the midst of a heat wave Friday, and temperatures were in the low 90s in the nearby town of Jackson, according to the National Weather Service.

More than 2,500 firefighters were battling the blaze in Amador and Calaveras counties Friday, and seven air tankers were among the aircraft attacking the fire, Cal Fire said. The department warned of "explosive fire conditions" made worse by steep topography and high temperatures.

Cal Fire Incident Commander Phil Veneris warned anyone near the fire that "if you see smoke or fire approaching your community, evacuate the area immediately."

The cause of the fire is under investigation, Cal Fire said.