FERNDALE, Calif. -- A powerful earthquake rocked the sparsely populated Northern California coast yesterday, knocking brick facades off buildings, sparking fires that destroyed several businesses and a post office, and sending at least 35 injured people to local hospitals.
The quake, which registered 6.9 on the Richter scale, began its long rumble through Humboldt County at 11:06 a.m. and was centered in a rural area about 35 miles south of Eureka, seismologists said. Shock waves were felt 260 miles away in San Francisco and in parts of Oregon and Nevada.
The heaviest damage was in Ferndale, a dairy town and artist colony of 1,700 that is home to some of California's best-preserved Victorian homes. The town was sponsoring a "Best of the West Festival" yesterday, and its shops and sidewalks were jammed with celebrators in Western garb when the shaking began.
"It was one enormous pow -- a bang -- and then it just kept going and going," said Gary Edgemon, 41, who owns a Ferndale meat store and serves with the town's volunteer fire department. "When the faces of the buildings fall off and windows start falling out, you know it's something else."
Pat Tomasini was in the kitchen of her blue, two-story Victorian home when the quake struck.
"I heard the door pop, then the windows popped, then the dishes came flying out of the cupboards," Ms. Tomasini said. "I tried to run out the back door, but there was no porch there, so my husband took me out the kitchen window."
Downtown, people were knocked screaming to the ground by violent tremors that shattered many of the large storefront windows on Main Street.
At least two dozen of the town's restored Victorian homes -- many of which house bed and breakfast inns and were full of guests yesterday -- were thrown off their foundations. The jolt also toppled chimneys and ripped front porches from many houses.
Officials closed the main road into Ferndale, and water, telephone and power service were unavailable to many residents throughout the region for much of the day.
Gov. Pete Wilson declared a state of emergency in Humboldt County, where damage was estimated at $3.5 million. Authorities urged people to stay in their homes, check their gas lines and gather emergency supplies to prepare for aftershocks, which continued through the day.
The coast near Eureka is one of the most seismically active regions of California, a spot where three tectonic plates -- the Pacific, the North American and the Gorda -- intersect.
During the last two decades, at least 10 strong quakes have rattled residents of the remote region. Yesterday's quake was the fourth measuring more than 6.5 to strike the area since 1980.
The Ferndale quake comes three days after a 6.1 quake shook remote desert communities of southeastern California, approximately 600 miles to the south. That quake, centered near Joshua Tree National Monument, caused minor injuries and an estimated $1 million in damage. Seismologists said the two events were not related.
In Petrolia, a sheep ranching town of about 1,000 people south of Ferndale, at least 20 homes were jarred off their foundations.
A post office, restaurant and store were burned to the ground, and the fire station and town hall also were damaged, officials with the state Office of Emergency Services reported.
One unidentified man said he and his wife were exploring tide pools on the coast near Petrolia when the quake hit.
"We were knocked completely off our feet," he said. "The cliff above us began sliding down . . . like a big rockslide. I yelled at my wife, 'Run for the beach,' and we ran."
Officials in Eureka -- the largest city in Humboldt County -- said supermarkets and the major shop
ping center were closed because of toppled shelves and other minor damage. Traffic lights were out, but residents quickly assisted overworked police in directing motorists.
At the Humboldt County Fairgrounds, the Red Cross set up shelters for those who lost their homes, and the Salvation Army was preparing meals for victims.
Of the 35 people injured in the shaking, 11 people were reported hospitalized yesterday.
John Coleman of Redwood Memorial Hospital in Fortuna said the injured mostly suffered bruises and cuts, but some had chest pains and broken bones.
Tom Mullins, a spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services in Sacramento, said damage and casualties would have been much more severe if the earthquake had struck in a more populated area.
"It was a strong earthquake, but the area is relatively rural and relatively sparsely populated," Mr. Mullins said.
Gil Santiago, the pastor of Ferndale's Lutheran Church, was one of a few dozen people forced to find shelter because their homes were torn asunder by the earth's gyrations.
Mr. Santiago said the quake started a small fire at his church, located adjacent to his home, but that it was quickly extinguished by parishioners.
When the earthquake struck, Mr. Santiago was in his house with his 13-year-old daughter, Robin.
"The hardest part was getting out of the house," said Mr. Santiago, 37. "The back porch was buckled so we couldn't get out that way. The front porch tilted up so we had to knock boards down to get out."