Mill Fire in Siskiyou County tests communities battered by wildfires
Two people have died and thousands of residents around Weed, Ca. were on evacuation orders over the weekend because of the Mill Fire in Siskiyou County. It’s just the latest in a string of disasters to test this community in far Northern California.
Usually, the horizon around Weed is dominated by Mt. Shasta, a 14,000-foot goliath looming east of this town of around 2,800 residents. But over the weekend, the mountain was eclipsed by thick wildfire smoke.
The Mill Fire started on Friday afternoon near the Roseburg Forest Products mill site. Strong winds drove it north through several rural communities in a matter of hours.
Rosanne Wallace lives in Lake Shastina. She and family members camped in their truck during the fire. They returned home every few hours to spray down the roof of their house with water as planes dropped pink fire retardant from above.
“It was like a war zone because the big borate bombers – the big ones – were coming in from, I guess, Klamath Falls or Medford or wherever, and they were coming right over the house really low. It was crazy,” Wallace said.
On Saturday she was riding her bicycle into the evacuation zone to see what was still standing. Wallace has lived in the area for 21 years. Her house is okay, but this is the second year in a row she’s had to leave because of a fire.
“A year ago, we were evacuated for four days with the Lava Fire. And we had three days to get ready,” she said. “This time we had three hours.”
During a community meeting in Montague on Sunday, Siskiyou County Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue confirmed that the fast-moving, wind driven fire had left two people dead.
“I can confirm that we have two fatalities. Some of you may have already heard of that or heard rumors of that. There’s no easy way of putting that,” LaRue said.
Preliminary numbers suggest up to 100 structures have been partially or completely destroyed between Weed and Lake Shastina, according to LaRue. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
The Mill Fire started about a month after the McKinney Fire drew national attention to Siskiyou County in August. It’s now 99% contained, but four people died in the fire and it destroyed much of the small town of Klamath River.
On Friday night the Red Cross set up an emergency shelter at the Karuk Wellness Center in Yreka. One evacuee was Eddie Russell. He lived in Lincoln Heights, a neighborhood next to the mill. Russell was in the town of Mt. Shasta when the fire started. He said he lost his house and everything in it.
“That whole block, that whole area is gone. Gone. And the reason I know that is because they told us. They told us that it was all gone,” Russell said.
He and about 70 other people have been staying at the evacuation center until other options become available. Without medical information, Russell said he’s had a hard time getting the insulin he relies on and other medications for his bipolar disorder. But he said the Red Cross staff are helping with food and a place to sleep and relax.
“That’s pretty much what I’m doing, keeping a straight head, staying calm, and just taking it step by step,” he said.
The destruction in Weed from the Mill Fire is reminiscent of yet another wildfire, the 2014 Boles Fire. It destroyed 165 buildings in Weed. It took years for the community to recover, before this latest disaster.
For people who evacuated this week, pets are another concern. The Yreka nonprofit, Rescue Ranch, is housing around 80 “fire dogs” -- strays picked up during the fire but also pets of evacuees in shelters or at hotels who couldn’t bring them along.
Inside a long building filled with kennels, Rescue Ranch Assistant Manager Ari Strasser said people started bringing dogs in shortly after the fire broke out.
“Luckily, we hadn’t completely broken down from last month’s fire, so we still had some stuff in place,” he said. “And very luckily and thankfully, we had a lot of supplies and dog food here already that were donated during the last fire. So, in a way, we were kind of ready for dogs to start coming.”
Strasser said the free dog care gives owners peace of mind that their pets are safe and being cared for during a very stressful time.
As of Sunday, the Mill Fire was no longer growing, but it’s just the latest strain being put on this Northern California community in an area with growing wildfire risks.