MANTON, Calif. – A huge wildfire sparked by lightning in Northern California burned to the edge of three small towns Monday, threatening thousands of homes as fearful residents sought safety miles away at an emergency shelter.

“All we can do is pray,” evacuee Jerry Nottingham said.

The fast-moving Ponderosa Fire was one of many burning across the West, where lightning, dry temperatures and gusting winds have brought an early start to fire season.

More than 1,400 firefighters were battling the Ponderosa Fire in densely forested terrain as it threatened 3,500 homes in the towns of Manton, Shingletown and Viola, about 170 miles north of Sacramento.

“These are the largest number of homes we’ve had threatened so far this year,” state fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said. “The grass, brush and timber up here are so dry, and once the lightning with no rain struck, the flames began to spread quickly.”

The fire has destroyed seven homes while blackening 23 square miles. It was just 5 percent contained after beginning Saturday.