SUSANVILLE— A raging 4,100-acre forest fire forced evacuations of 60 homes and a hospital, coating the town of Susanville with dark soot and giving firefighters an unwelcome taste of what could be ahead this summer.
“This is the closest I’ve seen a fire to Susanville in my life,” said Bob Garate, 45, a former firefighter whose home was threatened by the blaze. “I haven’t seen dry conditions like this since 1977. We’re in for a long, hard summer.”
The fire, which had burned to the city limits and was within a quarter-mile of an RV park, was one of several burning Tuesday in the region. Susanville, with a population of 17,500, is located about 80 miles northwest of Reno, Nev.
Firefighters battled a 6,500-acre wildland blaze near Pyramid Lake, about 40 miles north of Reno. And there was a fire about 250 miles southwest of Susanville in the Mendocino National Forest, where 145 acres have been scorched. That one was expected to be extinguished by Thursday, said forest spokeswoman Phebe Brown.
In New Mexico, firefighters braced for hot, dry, windy weather in their battle against a blaze that has scorched about 1,400 acres of the Guadalupe Mountains in an unpopulated area of the Lincoln National Forest.
At a Denver news conference Tuesday, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said the summer is shaping up as one of the worst in decades for wildfire potential.
“This is the second-driest year in the last 100 years in the Pacific Northwest,” she said, adding that millions of federal acres need to be cleared of underbrush.
Last year was the worst for fires in a half-century, with 93,000 wildfires damaging 7.3 million acres.
The Susanville blaze started about seven miles west of town Sunday on private timberland after being sparked by a man shooting targets in the woods, said state Dept. of Forestry spokeswoman Wendy McIntosh. The man, whose name was not released, was cited for causing a fire and letting it escape.
“This is an August fire in May, and you have to wonder where it’s going to go from here. It could be a long, expensive summer,” said fire information officer Steve Harcourt.
“These people are fortunate because this fire happened early in the summer when there were adequate resources to fight it. The calvary may not be able to be there later this summer when there are too many fires.”
Fire officials said the blaze was about 35 percent contained. About 1,300 firefighters tried to slow the flames’ advance using fire engines and bulldozers to build a fire line. Seven air tankers and a dozen helicopters also were used.
“We’re making good progress, but the threat to Susanville is not over,” said fire information officer Steve Gasaway. “We’re still worried about high winds and what they could do to the fire.”
Two firefighters were injured while battling the blaze, including one with a possible broken arm.
The fire skirted eight homes, coming as close as 30 feet to some of them. About 140 residents were evacuated, but were allowed to return to their homes late Tuesday morning.
Lassen Community Hospital had to evacuate 25 patients Monday night when the fire burned with a quarter mile of the facility, said Laura Lang, executive assistant at the 59-bed hospital.
“We had quite a few embers blowing this way and the smoke was very thick. For health reasons, and just to calm the patients, we evacuated them,” Lang said.
McIntosh said two Susanville-area residents suffered minor injuries, but no structures had been damaged or destroyed.
Residents in the area are accustomed to fires, but this one was too close for comfort, said Dan Merritt of the Susanville Interagency Fire Center.
“It’s not uncommon for there to be forest fires in the area, but this is the closest it’s come to town in the 35 years since I’ve been here,” Merritt said. “It’s also the earliest we’ve had a major forest fire in those 35 years.”
Evacuees were asked to check in at Lassen High School. By 10 p.m. Monday, 15 people had arrived at the school to spend the night on cots. Roger Bailey and his wife, Jean, took refuge there after they were forced to evacuate their home.
“It was real smoky and scary,” Roger Bailey said. “I had tears on my cheeks. It’s home.”
Cars traveling Susanville’s streets had to use headlights to cut through the thick soot and smoke in the air. Elementary, junior high and high schools in Susanville were closed Tuesday due to concerns about air quality.