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Californians chased away by unruly wildfire could face many nights in evacuation shelters

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MIDDLETOWN, California — As firefighters battled a massive Northern California wildfire threatening numerous homes, some of the 13,000 people urged to flee their residences were spending what may be just one of many nights in evacuation shelters.

The blaze grew to more than 101 square miles Tuesday as it chewed through drought-withered brush that has not burned in years in the Lower Lake area about 100 miles north of San Francisco.

More than 3,000 firefighters tried to stand their ground against the blaze that jumped a highway that had served as a containment line and grew by several square miles despite cooler weather and higher humidity. Its rapid growth caught firefighters off guard and shocked residents.

Vicki Estrella, who has lived in the area for 22 years, stayed at a Red Cross shelter at Middletown High School with her husband and their dog.

"It's amazing the way that thing spread," Estrella said. "There was smoke 300 feet in the air."

Cooler weather Tuesday is helping crews build a buffer between the flames and some of the 5,500 homes it threatened. Despite the fire's growth, no additional homes were consumed outside the two dozen already destroyed.

More than 13,000 people have been forced from their homes or warned to leave since the blaze ignited Wednesday.

Crews conducted controlled burns, setting fire to shrubs to rob the blaze of fuel and protect homes in a rural area of grasslands and steep hills. Nearly a week into the fight, fatigue has set in for crews, leading resources from in and out of state to rotate in.

"There were too many (spot fires) for us to pick up," Battalion Chief Carl Schwettmann of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection told the San Francisco Chronicle. "With these drought-stricken fuels, it's just moving at an extremely high rate of speed."

The fire — the largest blaze in drought-stricken California — roughly tripled in size over the weekend, generating its own winds that fanned the flames and reduced thousands of acres of manzanita shrubs and other brush to barren land in hours.

"There's a lot of old growth-type vegetation and four years of drought to dry it all out," said Lynne Tolmachoff, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "It was ready to go."

The fire is burning 10 miles from Clear Lake, the largest freshwater lake entirely within California and a popular spot for boaters and campers, but no homes around the lake are threatened, fire officials said.

Numerous other wildfires in California, Washington state and Oregon took off as the effects of drought and summer heat turned the West Coast combustible.

California blazes killed a firefighter last week and injured four others. Crews battled at least 20 other wildfires in the state — some sparked by lightning — though none as big as the Lower Lake blaze. Mandatory evacuations were also in place farther north in a remote rural area of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

The Lower Lake fire is well short of historic proportions. One of the largest wildfires in California history was a 2013 blaze that took out 400 square miles of Sierra Nevada wilderness.


Daley reported from Middletown, California Associated Press writers Olga R. Rodriguez, Sudhin Thanawala and Kristin J. Bender in San Francisco and Yara Bishara in Phoenix contributed to this report.

PHOTO: A fire burns to the north of U.S. Highway 20 east of Spring Valley in Lake County, Calif., Monday, Aug. 3, 2015. Firefighters were working aggressively to regain control after a raging California fire jumped a highway that had served as a containment line for the massive blaze, which is one of 20 wildfires burning in California. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
A fire burns to the north of U.S. Highway 20 east of Spring Valley in Lake County, Calif., Monday, Aug. 3, 2015. Firefighters were working aggressively to regain control after a raging California fire jumped a highway that had served as a containment line for the massive blaze, which is one of 20 wildfires burning in California. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

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Video:
PHOTO: Evacuees at a center in Middletown, Caliifornia expressed frustration at the lack of information as cooler weather helped crews build a buffer Monday between a raging Northern California wildfire and some of the thousands of homes it . (August 3)
Evacuees at a center in Middletown, Caliifornia expressed frustration at the lack of information as cooler weather helped crews build a buffer Monday between a raging Northern California wildfire and some of the thousands of homes it . (August 3) PHOTO: Cooler weather helped firefighters slow the spread of a Northern California wildfire that scorched more than 90 square miles, destroyed at least two dozen homes and forced thousands to flee their homes. (Aug 3)
Cooler weather helped firefighters slow the spread of a Northern California wildfire that scorched more than 90 square miles, destroyed at least two dozen homes and forced thousands to flee their homes. (Aug 3)
Photo Gallery:
PHOTO: CalFire firefighter Bo Santiago lights a backfire as the Rocky fire burns near Clearlake, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 3, 2015. The fire has charred more than 60,000 acres and destroyed at least 24 residences. (AP Photo/Josh Edelson)
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