5 firefighters injured as Rices fire in Northern California swells past 900 acres

A Cal Fire hand crew prepares to attack the Rices Fire Tuesday, June 28, 2022, off of Troost Trail, in North San Juan, Calif. (Elias Funez/The Union via AP)
A Cal Fire hand crew prepares to attack the Rices Fire Tuesday, June 28, 2022, off of Troost Trail, in North San Juan, Calif. (Elias Funez/The Union via AP)Elias Funez/AP

LOS ANGELES — The Rices fire burning in Northern California continued to stymie fire crews on Thursday as it ballooned past 900 acres with only 12% containment.

At least five firefighters have been injured battling the blaze, which sparked Tuesday in rural Nevada County near the Yuba River. Officials said the injuries were primarily heat-related as temperatures near the fire soared into the 80s and 90s this week.

Crews are also contending with dangerously steep terrain and drought-dried brush that can easily act as fuel for flames, according to Mary Eldridge, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“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 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.”

Four structures have been destroyed by the fire and hundreds more are threatened, she said. Evacuation orders remain in place in four zones in Nevada County, with several surrounding areas under evacuation warnings.

The fire so far is holding at the Yuba River, a border between Nevada and Yuba counties, Eldridge said. But it is the biggest fire this year in the five-county area of Nevada, Yuba, Placer, Sutter and Sierra.

“It burned quite quickly due to the amount of fuels that were in that canyon, and it doesn’t have a lot of fire history on it” she said. “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 on Thursday were optimistic that changing weather conditions, including cooling temperatures, increasing humidity and slowing winds would help them turn a corner on the blaze.

Highs near the fire were expected to reach only into the low to mid-80s on Thursday, according to Sierra Littlefield, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

“We will see the moisture content in the air gradually increase into the (Fourth of July) holiday, which is definitely beneficial,” Littlefield said. “Temperatures will also be a tad below normal actually for this time of year.”

Winds near the fire on Thursday were expected to be around 10 mph with possible gusts up to 15 mph, she said.

Some of the initial smoke from the fire has dissipated, she said. However, the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District has issued an air quality health advisory that will remain in effect through Tuesday due to the fire.

“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,” the advisory says.

Residents who smell or see smoke are advised to stay indoors with doors and windows closed as much as possible.

Eldridge, of Cal Fire, said shifting winds could help the blaze burn back onto itself.

“That’s actually a best-case scenario,” she said. “But you just never know, with the wind on it, if it might pop something up.”

Around 1,000 personnel are battling the fire from the air and ground, she said, adding that aerial crews on Wednesday dropped 83,000 galloons of retardant onto the flames.

The big concern now is keeping the structures that overlook the river safe as it creeps to the northwest, she said.

“You can imagine the beautiful views these folks have sitting on the top of the ridge looking down at the river — it’s lovely,” Eldridge said. “It’s just that now it’s covered in smoke.”