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Wildfire Hits Historic Mining Town

Residents of this historic mining town surveyed the scorched ruins of their community Monday, two days after a wildfire destroyed 22 houses and two commercial buildings while blackening more than 9,000 acres in northern California.

French Gulch, founded by French miners during the gold rush, was a boom town in the mid-1800s but has since become a quiet enclave of white picket fences and old wooden homes where retirees mingle with commuters traveling to jobs in Redding, about 19 miles to the west.

On Saturday, two walls of flame blew through, forcing a hurried evacuation of residents and destroying nearly a sixth of the town's buildings.

Residents called it the worst disaster in the town's 155-year history.

"Oh, they'll rebuild," said Postmaster Karen Adams, reopening the post office for those who didn't flee from the flames. "They're like a family here. Some of these families have been in town for generations."

By Monday afternoon, the fire had consumed more than 9,010 acres of timber and brush and continued to burn to the north. Fire officials predicted it would not be fully contained until Friday.

The blaze moved into heavily timbered canyons dotted with silver and gold mines, said Dottie Cary of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"What's hampering us now is the topography," Cary said. "With the rattlesnakes, it adds to the problems."

Crews used hand tools and bulldozers to dig a line around part of the fire and set backfires to remove fuel from its path. Fire trucks were stationed to protect some homes.

Firefighters managed to save a church, post office, elementary school, hotel "and, of course, the bar," Cary said.

"Thank you, firefighters, God bless you all," read one hand-painted sign in front of a house also spared by the flames.

The fire's cause is under investigation. No injuries were reported.

More than 300 residents were ordered to evacuate, though not everyone did. The town still lacked electricity and running water Monday, and many residents waited to return.

Meanwhile, roosters and deer roamed among the ruins, and ash fell like snow. Scorched gray hillsides testified to more than a half-century of unchecked brush growth. Townspeople said head-high brush stood in many places, fueling the fast-burning fire.

Though residents tried to put on a brave face, many said their little town will never be the same. Many of the burned homes dated back to the 1880s.

The century-old St. Rose's Catholic Church burned to the ground six years ago, and now the Oddfellows Hall, a centerpiece of downtown, is also gone.

"I think you get out of shock at first and deal with it the best you can and hope other folks have house insurance," said John Felsher, 42, a Redding resident who grew up in French Gulch. His grandmother's house survived the flames.

"We're just lucky it has a composite roof and green grass all around," Felsher said. "We're very lucky."

Elsewhere in California, a 10,400-acre fire that destroyed 80 homes, 30 outbuildings and 10 vehicles in the hills south of Shasta Lake, about 140 miles northwest of Sacramento, was contained Monday, officials said. Most residents had been allowed to return home.

In Washington state, 65 people became trapped on a highway Monday evening when mudslides closed the road in both directions near North Cascades National Park.

The slides, triggered by a sudden downpour, did not injury anyone, but there was no immediate estimate when the 300-foot-wide piles of mud would be cleared.

Firefighters continued battling a fierce wildfire in the community of Dryden, about 85 miles east of Seattle. Forecasts called for temperatures as high as 100 degrees, low humidity and increasing winds with the threat of thunderstorms.

By Jim Wasserman