The Rices fire in Northern California stymied fire crews again on Thursday, growing to 900 acres with only 12 percent containment.
At least five firefighters were injured while battling the blaze, which broke out Tuesday in rural Nevada County near the Yuba River. Officials said the injuries were mostly caused by heat, as temperatures near the fire reached the 80s and 90s this week.
According to Mary Eldridge, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, crews are also dealing with dangerously steep terrain and drought-dried brush that can easily act as fuel for flames.
“It’s just incredibly difficult to access, and so they’re talking about doing rope systems to even get down there,” Eldridge said, adding that there are large rock outcroppings “where it can go from a 20- or 30-foot drop to a 150-foot drop, so it’s hard for firefighters to really get in there with any kind of tools.”
According to her, the fire has destroyed four structures and threatens hundreds more. Nevada County remains under evacuation orders in four zones, with several surrounding areas under evacuation warnings.
Eldridge said the fire is currently holding at the Yuba River, which serves as a border between Nevada and Yuba counties. However, it is the largest fire this year in Nevada’s five counties of Yuba, Placer, Sutter, and Sierra.
“It burned quickly because of the amount of fuels in that canyon, and it doesn’t have a lot of fire history on it,” she explained. “Between the brush and the heavy timber, there was a lot of fuel to burn, so once it got started — and because of the steepness of the canyon — it was really able to make that first run.”
Eldridge said crews were optimistic on Thursday that changing weather conditions, such as cooler temperatures, increased humidity, and slower winds, would help them turn the corner on the blaze.
According to Sierra Littlefield, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento, highs near the fire were only expected to reach the low to mid-80s on Thursday.
“The moisture content in the air will gradually increase into the [Fourth of July] holiday, which will be definitely beneficial,” Littlefield said. “Temperatures will also be slightly below normal for this time of year.”
Winds near the fire were expected to be around 10 mph on Thursday, with gusts up to 15 mph possible, she said.
She stated that some of the initial smoke from the fire has dissipated. However, due to the fire, the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District has issued an air quality health advisory that will be in effect until Tuesday.
The advisory states that “air quality is expected to vary greatly throughout the advisory period depending on fire behavior and weather conditions, with smoke settling in low areas at night.”
Residents who smell or see smoke are advised to stay indoors as much as possible, with doors and windows closed.
According to Cal Fire’s Eldridge, shifting winds could help the blaze burn back onto itself.
“That’s a best-case scenario,” she explained. “But you never know, with the wind on it, if something will pop up.” Around 1,000 personnel are battling the fire from the air and on the ground, she said, adding that aerial crews dropped 83,000 gallons of retardant on the flames on Wednesday.
The main concern now, she says, is keeping the structures that overlook the river safe as it moves northwest.
“You can imagine the lovely views these folks have sitting on the top of the ridge looking down at the river,” Eldridge said. “It’s just that it’s now engulfed in smoke.”