Monday, June 23, 2008

Fighting fires on multiple fronts

Hundreds evaculate as firefighters save threatened homes near Fairfield

More than 100 fires were burning today throughout Northern California, straining firefighting resources and fouling the air throughout the Bay Area.

There are about 90 fires in Mendocino County alone, caused by lightning strikes, that have overwhelmed Cal Fire’s ability to fight them. Sixty of the fires are burning without Cal Fire response.

The major North Bay fires are:

In Napa County: Wild Fire, northeast Napa and northwest of Fairfield, 3,750 acres, 40 percent contained, started at 4 p.m. Saturday, being fought by 438 firefighters with 41 engines. Several residential areas under mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders.

In Lake County: Walker Fire, near Indian Valley Reservoir, 2,000 acres, not contained, being fought by 54 firefighters with 12 engines, voluntary evacuations at Double Eagle Ranch and Bear Valley Ranchland.

In Mendocino County: Ninety fires were burning 7,625 acres. The largest are the Orr Fire at Orr Springs Resort, 200 acres, no containment; Navarro Fire, 1,400 acres, 5 percent contained; Cherry fire, 50 acres, 50 percent contained; Foster Fire, 50 acres, 50 percent contained; Table Mountain Fire, 1,000 acres, 5 percent contained; Mallo Pass Fire, 800 acres; and Juan Creek fires, 100 acres.

On Sunday, hundreds of people fled their homes as the wildfire that started in a sparsely populated area of Napa County roared across dry grasslands to within a few hundred yards of a subdivision west of Fairfield.

About 250 homes were threatened in the fire that was 35 percent contained by Monday morning, Cal Fire officials said.

Firefighters caught a break when a marine layer raised the moisture level in the air overnight.

Sunday, the fire appeared to have narrowly missed the high-end development known as Green Valley, about 10 miles outside of Fairfield.

As firefighters from across Sonoma County were dispatched to help, another fire began in Clearlake Oaks, north of Highway 20 near Walker Ridge Road.

Early Sunday, the fire in Napa County destroyed one home, a few barns and caused one minor injury when it moved into a remote area of Solano County, according to Cal Fire.

As it advanced to a more populated part of the county, residents feared the worst.

"It's kind of tense right now," said Mary Kolbert, 74, watching as the fire burned to within 1,000 feet of her home in the northernmost part of Green Valley at 5 p.m.

Flames 7 feet high moved through the brush, crackling louder than a campfire. A helicopter flew overhead, and dropped hundreds of gallons of water on the hillside.

Close to 100 firefighters formed a line where undeveloped ranchland met the subdivision. Another 250 firefighters were placed in other strategic areas around the blaze.

Helicopters, prop planes and a converted DC-10 jetliner peppered the line with water and flame retardant.

The strategy appeared to have worked. The fire's southerly progression kicked east late Sunday.

Kolbert's home and more than 200 others in the area appeared safe, but firefighters planned to spend the night in the area in case strong winds kicked up the flames.

Earlier, the fire skirted expensive ranch homes in the hills between Napa and Fairfield.

"The dramatic thing was watching the fire come down the road toward our home," said Marilyn Roscoe, who lives near the Napa-Solano county line, where the fire was sparked by lightning.

She and her husband sat in their living room as "a wall of flames" roared past their ridgetop home at 11 p.m. Saturday.

Firefighters blasted the fire with hoses, and by 1 a.m. it had moved on, leaving a wide swath of blackened earth that continued to smolder Sunday. The Roscoes lost two barns and an old, unoccupied house on their property.

Firefighters from Penn-grove's Rancho Adobe fire district were stationed in the area, and it was a long night for them.

"There hasn't been much sleep," said Capt. Bill Adams.

Adams and his three-man crew were posted along Twin Sisters Road on the west side of Suisun Valley, where they managed to keep flames away from a house.

Up the street a mile, fire burned through the base of a power pole. A wooden stump dangled from the lines, and as strong winds blew, the end of the pole smoldered orange like an enormous, suspended cigar.

Adams wonders what the rest of the fire season holds, noting he hasn't seen fires of this caliber start so early in the year.

"It's crazy. This is stuff you wouldn't expect to see until September or October," said the 20-year veteran. "There are going to be a lot of tired people by the end of this season."

As airplanes dropped massive amounts of flame retardant near Green Valley, residents fled.

"I loaded up the car with everything that was valuable," said Ed Levin. "It's nerve-wracking. You never know what is going to happen."

Up the street, Chris Dowling and his wife, Cecilia, loaded trailers with old cars and antique furniture.

"Everything we're taking, I'm hoping we can bring back," said Cecilia Dowling.

At the Kolbert home, tensions ran high as the family stood by. The flames moved closer. Three Fairfield firefighters stood by with hoses, their fire engines parked in the driveway.

"It's wait and see," said Capt. Robert Bartoli.

At 6 p.m., it seemed inevitable the flames would reach the home. The family paced around their deck, ready to retreat, if necessary.

Helicopters and planes passed overhead, dumping load after load of retardant.

"We're the biggest fans of these helicopters," Mary Kolbert said. "They're doing a good job too."

Within an hour, the fire that once seemed inevitable turned east toward ranch land.

"I think we got it under control here," Bartoli said. "They were lucky."

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