Hundreds of people rushing to escape a massive wildfire charging across the tinder-dry Sierra Nevada foothills said Saturday that they had to make wrenching decisions about what to save — pets, loved ones' ashes — and what to leave to possibly burn.
A blood-red sun pushed through a choking fog of smoke and ash that turned the wooded area about 70 miles southeast of Sacramento an eerie white. Away from the burned-out cars and smoldering remains of homes, Annette Stout and other residents who fled the flames rested at evacuation centers.
Stout was ordered from her house Friday afternoon, and for the first time since her husband's death in March, she drove their recreational vehicle to safety in Angels Camp, a quaint town made famous by Mark Twain's "The Celebrated Tale of the Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."
"I grabbed my cats, their carriers, important papers, my husband death's certificate and his ashes," said Stout, who lives in the community of Hathaway Pines.
Despite the outpouring of help at the center set up at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds, she didn't sleep well.
"We knew we were safe here, but (I was) worrying about the house, worrying about those who couldn't flee," she said.
The blaze that ignited Wednesday exploded to more than 100 square miles in two days amid triple-digit temperatures and land parched from several years of drought. But crews gained some ground Saturday, increasing containment slightly despite smoke grounding helicopters and air tankers, state fire officials said. The fire has destroyed at least 15 buildings and threatened some 6,400 more.
At the fairgrounds, Joe Thomas rested on a folded tent near his pickup truck, one of dozens of parked cars and RVs. He described what he could save from the flames — and what he couldn't.
"I lost my business — it's all burned up — my shop, my house, 28 years of living," said Thomas, who lives near the community of Mountain Ranch. "I got to start all over. It's depressing."
Thomas, who runs a tractor dealership and repair business, said he and his wife grabbed papers, his work computer, photos and their four dogs. But they left a goat, five ducks, six rabbits and more than 30 chickens behind.
"I turned the pens open and turned them lose. I just couldn't gather them up," he said. "All we want to do is go home. It's miserable."
Another evacuee, Michelle Griffiths checked on livestock after spending much of the night rescuing her neighbors' four horses and seven cats in the community of Mountain Ranch.
"People were running for their lives two nights ago," which is when her neighbors left their house and livestock for a motel, Griffiths said.
"Fortunately, our house is still standing" and so is the neighbors', she said.
Heat and low humidity created problems taming the flames overnight, and triple-digit temperatures were again expected to hinder the fight, said Mike Mohler, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman.
"Since this fire started, we've have seen fire activity in the middle of the night what we (normally) see in the middle of the day," he said.
Cooler weather was forecast for later Saturday, but people in nearby San Andreas, a gold-rush town of 2,700 residents, have been told they may have to evacuate.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, helping free up funding and resources in the firefight. There are 3,000 firefighters assigned to the blaze, and more expected to arrive throughout the day. Its cause is under investigation.
Meanwhile, another California wildfire threatened to sweep through an ancient grove of Giant Sequoia trees. The lightning-caused fire has charred 172 square miles and grew by nearly 40 square miles in the last week.
In a fight to save the trees, firefighters have been clearing lines with bulldozers around the Grant Grove and putting up sprinklers. Firefighters continued to fortify containment lines Saturday, the U.S. Forest Service said.
The grove is named for the towering General Grant tree that stands 268 feet tall. There are dozens of Sequoia groves in the Sierra Nevada, and some trees are 3,000 years old.