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Thousands Flee Wind-Whipped Pawnee Fire In Lake County

CLEAK LAKE OAKS (CBS SF) -- A wind-whipped wildfire in rural Lake County grew to more than 7,000 acres Sunday, destroying at least 12 structures and forcing the evacuation of 500 homes as it roared toward the small community of Spring Valley.

The Lake County Sheriff's Department issued an expanded mandatory evacuation order for the Pawnee Fire at 4 p.m. to cover the entire town including all areas north of Highway 20 and east of Old Long Valley Road to Round Ball Road.

The evacuation order impacted about 2,500 residents.

Earlier in the day, Cal Fire said the blaze was "out of control" and the threat to homes in Spring Valley was "imminent." At 6 p.m., the blaze had grown to 7,700 acres and was threatening 600 structures as it burned through the area of steep, rugged terrain.

"We have a mandatory evacuation of Spring Valley," Cal Fire Division Chief Gary Bertelli said early Sunday. "It's imperative that they evacuate."

Bertelli said of the structures destroyed by daybreak, 10 were homes and two were outbuildings.

"What we're stressing is that people, when they get the evacuation order, they heed it immediately and get out and stay out until it is safe to return," state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Battalion Chief Jonathan Cox said. "This is one of four large fires burning in Northern California. It's a good reminder that fire season is upon us."

Dozens of neighbors gathered Sunday at a makeshift outdoor evacuation campground just a few miles from the Pawnee Fire.

The trauma the residents had already experienced was evident.

"It's been a hard; a difficult 24 hours," said evacuee Deborah Edwards through tears. "Not knowing if your dogs are okay, if your house is okay, if your neighbors are okay..."

The vantage point is quite familiar to many Lake  County residents escaping fires in recent years.

"I've been evacuated six times in the last five years," said evacuee Wayne McKennon. "This one's close; in my backyard."

Some of McKennon's younger relatives stayed behind to help firefighters protect their homes.

"I'm too damn old to fight it anymore. Got my wife and my dog and I'm out here," he explained.

When asked what he was able to bring with him, he replied, "What little I got. The rest is in the house."

An evacuation center was set up at Lower Lake High School on 9430 Lake Street in Lower Lake to accommodate those who had to leave their homes.

The Pawnee Fire began at around 5:21 p.m. near Pawnee Road and New Long Valley Road, northeast of Clear Lake Oaks.

Soaring temperatures, single digit humidity and gusty winds have prevented firefighters from holding the blaze away from the homes in Spring Valley. Overnight the fire jumped New Long Valley Road.

More than 230 firefighters, air tankers and bulldozers were called in to battle the blaze. Mutual aid was also rolling in from the Bay Area.

Fish and Game agents were aiding local residents in evacuating their animals. All residents of the Spring Valley subdivision have been ordered to immediately leave their homes.

No injuries have been reported.

Erratic wind and heat gripping a swath of California from San Jose to the Oregon border drove the flames, which were north of the wine country region where devastating wildfires killed 44 people and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses last October.

Farther north, a fire spanning about three-quarters of a mile in Tehama County destroyed "multiple residential and commercial buildings," Cal Fire said. But firefighters appeared to be making good progress — the Stoll Fire was halfway contained and some evacuees were allowed to return home, authorities said.

A second fire in Tehama County consumed 5.5 square miles (14 square kilometers), but no buildings were reported burned. The so-called Lane Fire threatened 200 structures and some homes had been evacuated, Cox said. It was 10 percent contained.

A fire in neighboring Shasta County grew to 1.6 square miles (4.14 sq. kilometers) and was 20 percent contained. The so-called Creek Fire had damaged no structures but did prompt evacuations.

The cause of each blaze was under investigation Sunday.

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