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California’s largest wildfire continued to grow Tuesday, and winds coming from the east could push the blaze in a new direction, fire officials said.
The Rocky Fire, burning in Lake, Yolo and Colusa counties northwest of Sacramento grew to 67,000 acres Tuesday up from 62,000 acres on Monday, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire, said. It was 20 percent contained Tuesday evening.
"One of the struggles on the Rocky Fire has just been how erratic the winds have been, pushing this fire in several different directions," Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.
The Rocky Fire, which broke out at around 3:30 p.m. on July 29, has destroyed 24 homes and threatens nearly 7,000 other structures, Cal Fire said. It jumped over Highway 20 in several spots Monday. Mandatory evacuations were ordered for about 13,000 people.
The fire threatened to move towards Clearlake, a town of around 15,000 about 90 miles northwest of Sacramento, and surrounding communities.
Peggy O’Day was among those who fled her home as the flames spread. "We could see the flames cresting up over the hill into the back of the valley, and that's when we decided we need to go," she said.
More than 10,000 firefighters were battling 23 major wildfires across California, mostly in the northern part of the state, on Tuesday. California is in the fourth year of a historic drought, resulting in bone-dry, tinderbox conditions that allow fires to spread quickly, Berlant said.
While normal temperatures Tuesday were expected to give firefighters an opportunity to make progress battling fires, thunderstorms predicted for Wednesday raised risks that lightning strikes could spark more fires.
Rick Sanders was among those who refused to leave his home Monday as the Rocky Fire spread. On Tuesday, he said it looks like his house will be spared.
"I have a lot of neighbors, I'm concerned for their houses," Sanders said. "Mine I'm pretty sure is safe."
There were at least 300 new fires in California just last week, Cal Fire said. So far this year, the department has responded to over 4,200 wildfires — about 1,500 more than the average for the same period, Cal Fire said.
The wildfires are also burning through budgets. A new report shows that the U.S. Forest Service used to typically spend about 16 percent of its budget on fire suppression, but this year that number is 52 percent. In 10 years, the Forest Service could be spending 67 percent of its budget on firefighting, the report said.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service, called on Congress to give the Forest Service the ability to use disaster funding to fight the most catastrophic fires.
"Instead of basically maintaining and restoring and making our forest more resilient … we're essentially one large fire department," Vilsack said.
Last week, U.S. Forest Service Firefighter David Ruhl, 38, died while responding to the Frog Fire in Modoc National Forest in the northeast part of California.
Ruhl's death was determined to have been caused by carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation, the Forest Service said Tuesday. A fire spokesperson said erratic winds made the fire hard to predict when Ruhl went missing.
California Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency. Aircraft from the California National Guard have been called in to help with firefighting efforts, officials said.