SUSANVILLE, Calif. - A raging 4,100-acre forest fire forced evacuations of 60 homes and a hospital, coating the town of Susanville with dark soot and giving firefighters an unwelcome taste of what could be ahead this summer.
"This is the closest I've seen a fire to Susanville in my life," said Bob Garate, 45, a former firefighter whose home was threatened by the blaze. "I haven't seen dry conditions like this since 1977. We're in for a long, hard summer."
The fire, which had burned to the city limits and was within a quarter-mile of an RV park, was one of several burning Tuesday in the region. Susanville, with a population of 17,500, is located about 80 miles northwest of Reno, Nev.
Firefighters battled a 6,500-acre wildland blaze near Pyramid Lake, about 40 miles north of Reno. And there was a fire about 250 miles southwest of Susanville in the Mendocino National Forest, where 145 acres have been scorched. That one was expected to be extinguished by Thursday, said forest spokeswoman Phebe Brown.
In New Mexico, firefighters braced for hot, dry, windy weather in their battle against a blaze that has scorched about 1,400 acres of the Guadalupe Mountains in an unpopulated area of the Lincoln National Forest.
At a Denver news conference Tuesday, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said the summer is shaping up as one of the worst in decades for wildfire potential.
"This is the second-driest year in the last 100 years in the Pacific Northwest," she said, adding that millions of federal acres need to be cleared of underbrush.
Last year was the worst for fires in a half-century, with 93,000 wildfires damaging 7.3 million acres.
The Susanville blaze started about seven miles west of town Sunday on private timberland after being sparked by a man shooting targets in the woods, said state Dept. of Forestry spokeswoman Wendy McIntosh. The man, whose name was not released, was cited for causing a fire and letting it escape.
"This is an August fire in May, and you have to wonder where it's going to go from here. It could be a long, expensive summer," said fire information officer Steve Harcourt.
"These people are fortunate because this fire happened early in the summer when there were adequate resources to fight it. The calvary may not be able to be there later this summer when there are too many fires."