Containment rises, but evacuations in effect after fire that destroyed 40 homes in California



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SWALL MEADOWS, California — Ira Hanson milled around an evacuation center near tiny Swall Meadows on Sunday afternoon, not quite sure what to do after learning that the dream home he and his late wife had built 30 years earlier was damaged in a wildfire that consumed 40 homes and buildings.

Sheriff's deputies had banged on the door and urged him to get out less than 48 hours earlier, and he'd fled the house with little more than his medications and a pillow. Officials later told him that fire crews had to knock down one of the home's walls in an effort to save another house next door, but he had yet to see the damage.

"It's unbelievable," said Hanson, 79. "It's like having a nightmare and you're going to wake up any minute and it won't be true."

Fire crews increased containment of the wind-driven wildfire that ravaged communities along the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, but they said Sunday that they still didn't know when the roughly 250 residents evacuated from Swall Meadows and nearby Paradise would be able to return home.

Utility workers were busy tending to the charred power poles along the roads in the two towns, and forestry crews sawed at fallen trees that blocked a main thoroughfare. Nearby, two gutted, gray trucks rested on a driveway that led to a pile of rubble.

With power poles down and hot spots smoldering near propane tanks, it was unclear when officials would lift evacuation orders.

"We would love to shoot for today, but I don't know," California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Capt. Liz Brown. "Once it's open, it's open. We don't have the resources to escort people in and escort them out."

The fire started Friday afternoon near a highway on the border of Inyo and Mono counties. It blew up when 50 to 75 mph winds whipped through wooded areas near the two communities for about three hours, turning the flames into a "freight train," Brown said.

April Miller, who was evacuated but later learned that her house survived, watched the blaze from a nearby crest.

"It was horrifying — this whole wall of red," said Miller, 72. "My friend had binoculars and she could see the skeletons of houses in the conflagration."

The relatively affluent community of Swall Meadows, which boasts sweeping views of the snow-covered Sierras and is home to retirees and outdoor enthusiasts, was hit hard by the blaze. Thirty-nine homes were destroyed there while one burned in the community of Paradise, Brown said.

Firefighters made progress after rain moved in, and they have since contained 65 percent of the 11-square-mile blaze.

But Brown said the rain hasn't been enough to completely put out the fire. A three-year drought across California has created extremely dry timber brush that fueled the flames and pushed them all the way up the Sierra slopes to the snow line around 8,000 feet, she said.

The cause of the fire was under investigation.

Meanwhile, officials running the evacuation center in Crowley Lake said they received an outpouring of support. Pizzas, fresh fruit and a birthday cake collected on a folding table, while a white board filled up with the names and phone numbers of people who had volunteered their homes for displaced humans and pets.

So many had opened their homes that nobody stayed in the shelter overnight.

"This is one of the most resilient communities you're ever going to find," said Mono County Administrator Jim Leddy. "They know how to take care of themselves and take care of their neighbors."

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