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Fire consumes 26 homes in N. California

SHARE Fire consumes 26 homes in N. California

YANKEE HILL, Calif. — Kenneth Renfrow believed he had prepared for the worst. But it took just 10 minutes Friday for a raging wildfire to consume his home and the car where he had stashed his valuables in case he needed to make a quick getaway.

"The fire was coming too far, too fast. There was nothing but a big wall of fire," the 65-year-old retired construction worker said. "There was nothing that I owned that didn't have flames on it."

Brisk winds doubled the size of the wildfire Friday in Butte County, north of Sacramento, turning Renfrow's home and at least 25 others into charred skeletons. About 400 other homes were threatened.

The 6,200-acre blaze was one of three major fires burning in Northern California. It turned the sky brown around Lake Oroville, about 85 miles north of Sacramento, and left the area reeking of smoke.

Renfrow, whose son's cabin was also incinerated on the family's 10-acre property, put photo albums, a coin collection, his first-edition books and his antique guns in his car. But the fire moved too quickly.

"All the treasure stuff I wanted to keep was in the car," said Renfrow, who escaped with only the blue jeans, red T-shirt and blue cap he had on. "They said I couldn't take the car. It was too hot. They said it would just blow up."

Fire officials were able to assess only 80 percent of the burned area late Friday, and more homes could have burned, said Cyndi Wilson of the California Department of Forestry.

The fire forced authorities to close a five-mile stretch of Highway 70.

"The fire is burning in very rough terrain," pushed by wind gusting to 20 mph, said Capt. Ted Crawford of the state Forestry Department.

More than 800 firefighters battling the blaze had only limited access to the remote, rocky ground in the Sierra foothills.

Authorities said the blaze swept over a fire engine in which four firefighters had taken refuge. In separate incidents, three residents and a firefighter suffered minor injuries.

The fire broke out Thursday morning near the small town of Jarbo Gap, in Butte County. People were forced to flee homes and a mobile home park in sparsely populated Yankee Hill.

The fire was only 20 percent contained Friday; it began when a dead tree snagged power lines.

Meanwhile, a wildfire near the small community of Hathaway Pines, northwest of Yosemite National Park, swelled to more than 2,600 acres overnight.

Nearly 400 homes in nine communities had been evacuated, and two minor injuries were reported. Scores of other homes and businesses have been threatened.

The blaze was 40 percent contained, but erratic winds hindered firefighters trying to fully contain the blaze Thursday.

"The weather is supposed to get warmer and drier ... but the wind is supposed to die down a bit," Calaveras County spokeswoman Mary Pitto said Friday.

The fire destroyed an aqueduct Wednesday, threatening the water supply of four towns. "Nobody's without water, but extreme conservation measures are in effect for 10,000 people," Pitto said.

An extra 1,000 firefighters — bringing the total to more than 1,800 — had arrived on the scene.

"They are launching an intense air attack with eight air tankers and eight helicopters," said Forestry Department spokeswoman Pat Baily. "The sky is very noisy, and it's a good sound."

Also in the region, a wildfire west of Lake Tahoe had charred 13,500 acres of brush and pine, but was more than 60 percent contained. The two-week-old blaze has caused an estimated $16 million in damage.

In Montana, a 65,500-acre fire on the western edge of Glacier National Park came to a virtual halt Friday as a surprise cold front brought rain — and even snow.

The abrupt change from hot, dry weather just days earlier prompted fire bosses to begin sending firefighters home. Lightning sparked the blaze three weeks ago.

"We're also relieving crews because this is the time in a fire when people begin to make really stupid mistakes," fire commander Larry Humphrey said.

The National Interagency Fire Center reported Friday that 14 major fires were burning on 190,426 acres in California, Idaho, Montana, Washington and Wyoming.

On the Net: National Interagency Fire Center: www.nifc.gov/

California Forestry Department: www.fire.ca.gov/