WEAVERVILLE, Calif. (AP) - Residents who had fled a day earlier, many a few steps ahead of wind-driven flames, returned to survey their homes Wednesday for damage from a wildfire that has charred more than 2,000 acres.
Firefighters continued to battle the blaze that forced the evacuation of thousands of residents and destroyed homes in this former mining town of about 3,550 residents located 200 miles north of San Francisco.
The residents, who had to endure thick smoke, were allowed to view their homes after firefighters cut down trees that posed a potential fire threat.
But officials feared winds could increase, again fanning flames and threatening Weaverville and the neighboring communities of Ten Cent Gulch and East Weaver.
''We're very concerned the winds could pick up and we could be in the same situation again,'' said Del Walters, deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry. ''Our objective is to keep the fire where it is.''
In Ukiah, about 100 miles to the south, a man was charged Wednesday with starting a brush fire that led to the deaths of two air tanker pilots when their planes collided Monday evening while fighting that 270-acre blaze.
Prosecutors said Frank Brady, 50, who was arraigned on two counts of murder and other charges, allegedly was operating a methamphetamine lab that may have been part of a broader drug ring involving the Hells Angels motorcycle gang.
In Weaverville, the fire had destroyed at least 12 homes. The fire was about 20 percent to 25 percent contained, and damage was estimated at $3.5 million, including destroyed buildings and timber.
No injuries were reported among residents. Several firefighters suffered heat exhaustion, and one twisted an ankle.
Among the worst hit areas was Tinnen Street, a tree-lined enclave of single-story homes nestled against a ridge. The residents, many elderly, returned to find four buildings destroyed and three trailers in a mobile home park burned to the ground.
''I can't believe it's gone,'' said Milt Apple, 25, staring at the rubble where his grandmother has lived for more than 20 years. ''She's pretty old. She doesn't know what she's going to do about it. She's too upset to even come look at it.''
Apple's neighbor, Ray Proffitt, was luckier. His home was an island of green amid a sea of black ash.
Proffitt, 75, a retired state fish and game warden, said he continually sprayed water from garden hoses on his home until the heat forced him to leave. His three-car garage was destroyed, but his home survived.
''I had to make a last-ditch effort,'' he said. ''When the trees started crowning and exploding, I left.''
At nearby Sidney Gulch Mobile Home Park, the remnants of several trailers continued to smoke and residents were being held back until propane tanks were checked for heat damage.
Weaverville's Main Street, a quaint collection of cafes, restaurants and shops, was a ghost town. Gone were the tourists who swarm to this mountain community during the summer months. Instead, firefighters walked the streets.
Twenty-seven large fires were burning on more than 229,415 acres Wednesday across the Western states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
In Northern California, about 55 miles northeast of Georgetown, the Star fire had burned more than 8,000 acres. The fire was 10 percent contained late Tuesday and was raging in steep canyons with very rugged terrain.
In Southern California, authorities were investigating whether an arsonist started an 1,800-acre brush fire that destroyed at least one house in the hills north of Los Angeles and burned within a few feet of several luxury homes. The fire was largely contained early Wednesday.
In Montana, Glacier National Park officials closed four campgrounds and banned trips into parts of the backcountry as firefighters battled the 15,000-acre Moose blaze just west of the park. About 15 homes were evacuated as the lightning-sparked fire shrouded the park in a smoky haze.
Fires also burned in Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Washington and Colorado.
National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov
Northern Rockies Coordination Center: http://www.fs.fed.us/r1/fire/nrcc