A Northern California wildfire that exploded overnight Wednesday and is now connected to at least three deaths was left smoldering for weeks in the Plumas National Forest, according to a report from the Sacramento Bee.
The Bear Fire, now part of the North Complex Fire, had been burning for weeks in the rugged terrain of Butte County forest land, the Bee reported. On Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, gusty winds fanned a veritable firestorm that forced thousands in and around Oroville to flee their homes.
In addition to the deaths, about a dozen people have been reported missing, and the blaze leveled the small community of Berry Creek, about 25 miles northeast of Oroville.
At least one Butte County official and some residents are questioning why the U.S. Forest Service delayed attacking the Bear Fire, the Bee reported.
"They let this fire smolder for weeks," Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly told the newspaper. "They could have put it out. This is procrastination from the U.S. Forest Service, and we’re paying the price."
The Forest Service said resources have been worn thin with all the fires burning in California and the Western U.S. Plus unpredictable winds made conditions unsafe for fire crews.
"Firefighters were making good progress, then the winds came in and spot fires took hold," Forest Service spokesperson Lisa Cox said. "Once those took hold with extremely low humidity levels … everything aligned for it to take off, and you can’t put firefighters in conditions like that."
The North Complex Fire exploded from 40,000 acres early Tuesday to more than 252,000 acres by Wednesday evening, and containment decreased from more than 50% to 24%, the U.S. Forest Service said.
Evacuation orders and warnings related to the blaze are widespread in Butte, Plumas and Yuba counties and now include parts of the town of Paradise, which just two years ago was leveled by the Camp Fire.