Wildfire in Northern California burns in 'dangerous' terrain, grows to 904 acres

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A firefighter assesses the approaching fire along Troost Trail in California's rural Nevada County as the Rices Fire burned more than 300 acres, Tuesday, June 28, 2022. (Elias Funez/The Union via AP)
A firefighter assesses the approaching flames along Troost Trail as the Rices fire burns in California's rural Nevada County on Tuesday. (Elias Funez / (Grass Valley, Calif.) Union via Associated Press)

Firefighters continued to make progress against a wildfire burning in rugged terrain in Northern California's remote Nevada County on Wednesday, but authorities warned that the work is far from over.

The Rices fire, which broke out Tuesday, had grown to 904 acres with 10% containment as of Wednesday night, said Brian Estes, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's Nevada-Yuba Placer Unit.

"We are definitely far from being out of the woods, but we have shown some significant progress," Estes said.

The fire burned down to the bottom of the Yuba River drainage overnight and in the early morning hours Wednesday, which firefighters had feared could put nearby communities in Yuba County in harm's way. But crews have been able to prevent the fire from crossing the river, Estes said.

As of Wednesday night, the fire was "100% holding in Nevada County," he said.

At the last check, around 6 p.m., hand crews on the fire's left flank were about 1,000 feet from "cutting this out and tying it in to the bottom of the river canyon," Estes said. On the right flank, crews were 150 feet from the river bottom.

"Just an incredible effort in some of the most unforgiving and treacherous terrain in our region," Estes said. "I can't understate the efforts from all of our Cal Fire firefighters, fire crews, our allied agencies and our representatives from across the region."

Fire crews are working in one of the deepest, largest river canyons in Northern California, navigating terrain "punctuated with sharp corners and huge rock escarpments that are very much like sheer cliffs," Estes said.

"At night, that becomes especially dangerous," he said. "We try always to go as direct as possible to the fire line. It's the safest and most effective way to fight fire, but there are areas on this canyon … where you physically cannot get people over some of these rock escarpments."

In an evening update, Cal Fire officials said five firefighters have been injured. They did not state the extent or nature of the injuries.

A map of part of Northern California shows the location of the Rice fire southeast of Oroville and northeast of Yuba City
A map of part of Northern California shows the location of the Rice fire southeast of Oroville and northeast of Yuba City

Investigators determined that the fire began in a structure before spreading to surrounding vegetation, Estes said. What caused the structure fire remains under investigation.

Authorities have confirmed only one structure destroyed, Estes said, but there are almost certainly others. Earlier Wednesday, Cal Fire had reported four structures destroyed.

"We know there are more, and already, starting tonight and well into tomorrow, our damage inspection teams will be canvassing the area in great detail," Estes said.

Once that survey is done, by Thursday afternoon or evening, authorities will have a much more accurate picture of the number of structures damaged or destroyed.

"We've got a big fire fight on our hands tomorrow," Estes said. "While you may not have seen the plumes and the columns that you saw in the first 24 hours, rest assured there is plenty of fire underneath that inversion."

Authorities hope to have the blaze contained by Friday, but that remains subject to change.

Evacuation orders remain in place in four zones of Nevada County, said Capt. Sam Brown of the Nevada County Sheriff's Office.

Authorities estimate about 250 residences, and about 300 people, are in areas affected by those orders, Brown said.

An additional five zones in Nevada County are under evacuation warnings, he said.

A detailed map of areas under evacuation orders and warnings is posted at readynevadacounty.org/dashboard.

As of Wednesday, there were a little more than 700 personnel assigned to the Rices fire, Estes said. Crews planned to work through the night.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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