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Fire damage to mill a blow to California town where forest fire hit scores of buildings

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WEED, California — Besides destroying or damaging scores of homes and other structures, a fast-moving wildfire struck a blow at the economic vitals of this struggling Northern California timber town, knocking its last wood products mill offline for an undetermined amount of time.

With a maintenance shed reduced to twisted sheet-metal and the main manufacturing facility suffering structural damage, but still standing with a new coat of pink fire retardant, the Roseburg Forest Products veneer mill on the outskirts of Weed was out of commission Tuesday while workers began assessing the damage, said Kellye Wise, vice president for human resources of the company based in Dillard, Oregon. The company hoped to have a better idea of when the mill could reopen by Monday.

"We were in the middle of its path," he said of the fire. "It shows the great response of our employees, some of whom lost their own homes."

As the fire roared through trees, brush and homes on Schoolhouse Hill on Monday, the mill had enough warning to send home most of the 60 workers on the day shift, and mobilize the mill fire crew, Wise said.

While they fought to save the mill, firebrands blew overhead and ignited bocks of houses downwind.

With 170 workers, the mill is the second largest employer in Weed, a blue-collar town of 3,000 people in the shadow of Mount Shasta, and it dates to 1897, when founder Abner Weed decided to take advantage of its strong winds as a natural drying process for the lumber turned out by his sawmills.

The mill shutdown, however temporary, is one more blow to Weed, which has never recovered from the logging cutbacks of the 1990s to protect the threatened northern spotted owl and salmon that put tens of thousands of people in Siskiyou County out of work, said Siskiyou County Supervisor Michael Kobseff.

The mill jobs are particularly valuable because they pay wages high enough to support a family, much higher than the tourism jobs that many have to turn to, he said. Some who lost their homes are determined to rebuild, but others have no insurance, making state and federal assistance important, he said.

"It's just going to be this close-knit community trying to get back on track," he said. "It's not going to be overnight."

Winds gusting up to 40 mph pushed the flames into town, where they quickly chewed through a hillside neighborhood. Officials said a significant number of the 150 structures burned were houses; three firefighters lost their homes. The cause is under investigation.

PHOTO: The burned remains of a local library and a Head Start center destroyed by a fire sit in Weed, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014. In just a few hours Monday, wind-driven flames destroyed or damaged roughly 100 homes, the saw mill and a church. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
The burned remains of a local library and a Head Start center destroyed by a fire sit in Weed, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014. In just a few hours Monday, wind-driven flames destroyed or damaged roughly 100 homes, the saw mill and a church. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

"It went through here so fast it was unbelievable," Jim Taylor, a retired butcher who has lived in the town for 30 years, said Tuesday. His house was one of three standing along his street after firefighters arrived in time to foam the side next to his neighbor's burning house. "I'm not a real religious person, but somebody was looking out for me."

The remnants of the Holy Family Catholic Church were still smoldering, its metal girders twisted on the ground.

"I mean it was devastating," said Maureen Campbell, the church's music minister who was baptized, confirmed and married at the church, along with her children. She lost her home to the fire.

"The house up there is no big deal. It can be rebuilt," she said. "But this is my family church, you know? It's much more endearing to me."

Fire crews took advantage of calmer winds and firefighting aircraft Tuesday, gaining control in and around Weed. Flames still threatened in other parts of California.

In Oakhurst, a foothill community south of Yosemite National Park, a 320-acre fire that damaged or destroyed 71 structures — 37 of them homes — was 50 percent contained. About 600 residents from 200 homes remained evacuated, Madera County sheriff's spokeswoman Erica Stuart said.

Meanwhile, a wildfire north of the town of Pollock Pines, about 60 miles east of Sacramento, has forced the evacuation of at least 700 homes. The wildfire has blackened about 20 square miles of forest land. It was only 5 percent contained.

More than 1,500 firefighters battled the blaze, which started in a remote area Saturday but exploded Sunday when it reached a canyon of thick, dry brush. It was only 5 percent contained.

More than 4,000 wildfires have burned in California this year.


Associated Press writers Terry Collins in San Francisco, Raquel Dillon in Weed, Alina Hartounian in Phoenix, and Robert Jablon and Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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Video:
PHOTO: Three wildfires in separate parts of California have damaged or destroyed scores of homes and forced hundreds of people to evacuate. (Sept. 16)
Three wildfires in separate parts of California have damaged or destroyed scores of homes and forced hundreds of people to evacuate. (Sept. 16) PHOTO: Stunned residents of Weed, California assessed the damage of their northern California town Tuesday, after a wildfire destroyed or damaged 100 homes, the saw mill and two churches. (Sept. 16)
Stunned residents of Weed, California assessed the damage of their northern California town Tuesday, after a wildfire destroyed or damaged 100 homes, the saw mill and two churches. (Sept. 16)
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