By Dan Whitcomb
LOSANGELES (Reuters) – An interstate highway closed for five days in Northern California by a massive wildfire was partly reopened on Monday, but the conflagration remained largely out of control as crews fought to protect a string of small foothill communities.
The Delta Fire, which broke out on Wednesday in a canyon along the Sacramento River some 250 miles (402 km) north of San Francisco, has since blackened more than 47,000 acres of dry mountain timber in and around the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
Although no deaths or serious injuries have been reported, flames raced across Interstate 5 in Shasta County on Wednesday, chasing truckers from their vehicles before flames engulfed the rigs.
The freeway was reopened on Monday after crews built a buffer between the roadway and the flames but travel was reduced to one lane in each direction for a 17-mile stretch south of the town of Dunsmuir.
“Firefighters continued efforts to strengthen control and contingency lines on all fronts. Evening priorities focused on preparing and protecting structures at the south end of the fire,” U.S. Forest Service officials said on the InciWeb fire tracking website.
Fire managers said shade from a persistent smoke cover limited fire activity on Sunday and allowed crews to cut containment lines.
Much of the effort has also focused on protecting scattered homes and small communities in the sparsely populated fire zone. Two single-family homes have been destroyed, and two other buildings damaged.
Crews have been hampered by steep terrain and narrow canyons and valleys that make it difficult to access the flames.
“The inversion is anticipated to lift on the western edge of the fire today, introducing the possibility of increased fire behaviour,” the Forest Service said. “Clear skies will also open opportunities for water drops by air operations.”
Approximately 150 people remained under mandatory evacuation orders in Shasta and Trinity counties. An evacuation warning was in effect for the town of Dunsmuir, advising some 1,600 residents to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice.
Shasta County communities are still recovering from a devastating blaze this summer that killed eight people and incinerated hundreds of dwellings in and around Redding during one of the most intense fire seasons across California and the U.S. West in a decade.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)