California town told to prepare to leave as wildfire surges

In this photo taken on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, a home burns near Mokelumne Hill, in Jackson, Calif. Another round of evacuations has been ordered as wildfires continue to rage in the central and northern part of the state. (Andrew Sent/The Sacramento Bee via AP)

SAN ANDREAS, Calif. (AP) — A wildfire in Northern California grew explosively Friday, forcing hundreds of people to evacuate from rural communities, destroying six homes, threatening thousands more, and prompting a state-of-emergency declaration from the governor.

“It’s expanding like a balloon,” said state fire spokeswoman Nancy Longmore. “It’s moving very fast. There’s many homes threatened. … This fire is extremely dangerous.”

In this photo taken on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, smoke from the Butte fire casts red and orange hues through the sky at Mokelumne Hill, in Jackson, Calif. The Butte fire, which started Wednesday near Butte Mountain Road, has burned thousands of acres and several homes. (Andrew Seng/The Sacramento Bee via AP)

The fire that had only burned about a single square mile Thursday morning had surged to 101 square miles by Friday evening. It was 5 percent contained.

At one point, the blaze was bearing down on the 2,700 residents of San Andreas, prompting an evacuation order for the entire town 60 miles southeast of Sacramento. But the fire changed direction and the order was called off a short time later, state fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

“The fire was quickly approaching the community,” Berlant said. “This fire is very dynamic and changing different directions with the topography. … That makes it very unpredictable, and with the exponential growth, we’re seeing a lot of danger not only to residents in the path of this fire but to our own firefighters, as well.”

San Andreas residents were told they still need to be prepared to evacuate.

Homes from smaller surrounding towns were under evacuation orders, with at least 460 people checking in at evacuation centers set up for the fire.

One of those evacuation centers was at the San Andreas Town Hall, which itself had to be evacuated for a while.

“I had to move a kitchen full of food, 217 beds, three huge air conditioners,” said Gina Gonzales, a Red Cross volunteer organizing the evacuation center.

About 90 minutes after moving everything to the Calaveras County Fairgrounds, Cal Fire ordered the evacuation center to move back to the San Andreas Town Hall because firefighters were going to make the fairgrounds their base camp, Gonzales said.

She said the roughly 65 evacuees were not only scared for their homes but frustrated with the moving and what they felt was a lack of information from fire crews.

Six homes and two outbuildings burned Thursday, and 6,000 more were threatened, Longmore said. The number of homes burned could increase, as Longmore said the blaze was moving through rural areas with houses.

“The plan is to try to get this thing out,” she said. “It’s going to take quite a bit of work. We’re in for the long haul here.”

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, helping to free up funding and resources in the firefight.

More than 1,500 firefighters, 178 engines, seven air tankers and 16 helicopters were assigned to fight the fire, which began Tuesday. The cause is under investigation.