Fires

Swansboro residents told to evacuate as King fire spreads

By Peter Hecht and Cathy Locke - phecht@sacbee.com

September 16, 2014 03:41 PM

UPDATED October 08, 2014 12:21 PM

An oasis in the mountains high above the American River, the Swansboro Country community of El Dorado County has always found safety in its isolation.

This rustic enclave of some 400 homes has its own airport – but otherwise is accessible only by a rickety 1939 suspension bridge over the river and a separate meandering passage, Rock Creek Road, that connects to state Highway 193.

The ravenous King fire, burning up the American River and Silver Creek canyons and devouring timber in the Eldorado National Forest, threatened the idyllic community, forcing its residents to flee Monday night and Tuesday morning.

The evacuation of remote Swansboro Country underscored the reach of the fire east of Pollock Pines that exploded from just 20 acres on Saturday to 12,780 acres by Tuesday night.

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Late Tuesday, the California Highway Patrol reported the closure of Highway 50 in both directions between Sly Park Road and Riverton due to the fire, and the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office has issued mandatory evacuations for neighborhoods in the eastern portion of Pollock Pines.

Mandatory evacuations were in effect late Tuesday for Pony Express Trail, east of Sly Park Road, and for several nearby roads on either side of Highway 50.

The Sheriff’s Office issued a voluntary evacuation order for the Gold Ridge area, including all residences west of Sly Park Road south of Highway 50 to the southern end of Gold Ridge Trail where it ties in to Sly Park Road.

For days, retirees Paul and Mary Sanders had watched the billowing smoke from their 2-acre Swansboro property and their deck, which offered a panoramic view of the danger that appeared to lurk far away.

“I didn’t want to go,” Mary Sanders said of leaving their home. But her husband, a former U.S. Forest Service employee, thought differently.

“I’m familiar with the terrain and how wildfires react – any way they darn well please,” Paul Sanders said.

Eventually, El Dorado County authorities and the local Swansboro fire chief told residents it was best to get out. The Sanderses drove out Monday on Rock Creek Road, making it to a storage park in Placerville, where they climbed inside their pre-parked RV and slept there for the night.

Swansboro resident Bonnie Miller left Tuesday morning. She navigated her sport-utility vehicle down hairpin turns and over the 9-foot-wide Mosquito Bridge over the south fork of the American River.

“It didn’t look like the fire had traveled that far and then, all of a sudden, we were being evacuated,” Miller said Tuesday as she arrived at a Red Cross emergency shelter set up at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Camino.

The Swansboro evacuation came after fire officials previously declared that some 500 homes near Pollock Pines were endangered. Residents of 130 of those houses were ordered to evacuate Sunday.

Pollock Pines Elementary School District officials early Tuesday evening scuttled earlier plans to reopen all of the district’s schools today, saying they had been advised to remain closed due to the growing and unpredictable fire.

“Based on the current changing fire behavior that has happened this afternoon, both the Office of Emergency Services and the King Fire Incident Command have now strongly recommended that the schools in Pollock Pines not reopen Wednesday,” El Dorado County sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Beyers, director of the Emergency Operations Center, said in a written statement.

Despite its fury, the fire of unknown origin hadn’t burned any structures as of Tuesday night. Two injuries had been reported to firefighters, including one person who suffered a broken arm. On Monday, a Northern California inmate crew escaped injuries after deploying portable fire shelters as the flames raced over them.

Kristi Schroeder, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, said the King fire could burn for several more days before being contained. More than 2,400 frefighters are battling the blaze, which was only 5 percent contained.

“It’s too early to predict right now,” Schroeder said of the fire’s potential duration. “Because of the steep terrain and country, all variables are in play. The vegetation is critically dry. Everything from the pine needles on the ground to the trees is so much easier to burn that it makes the fire move very fast.”

Schroeder said authorities decided to urge residents of Swansboro Country to leave because “you always want to evacuate ahead of the fire just to be safe.”

The fire was spreading as the peak fall Apple Hill tourism season was approaching in El Dorado County.

In Camino, visitors stopping in to buy fresh-baked pies at the Mill View Ranch got an ominous bonus to the vista of apple orchards, vineyards and a pumpkin patch. Far off in the distance, a long, blackish band of smoke spanned the fire region. Just to the east, whiter clouds from the fire billowed high into the sky.

Francisco Perez, an employee working in a bake shop filled with tourists, said business was still brisk despite the fire. Roads to Apple Hill attractions remained open.

“It’s still great up here, absolutely gorgeous,” Perez said. “The views are amazing. You can see the smoke. But we really don’t have it in this area.”

Dave Johnston, El Dorado County’s air pollution control officer, said the smoke from the fire was mostly blowing away from local communities, sparing many residents from serious health effects.

However, Johnson said smoke is being reported in areas including Foresthill, Truckee and Colfax in Placer County as well as North Lake Tahoe and Reno. Some of the smoke was also drifting into Central Valley areas, including Yuba, Sutter and Butte counties.

In areas with smoke, residents were urged to avoid strenuous exercise, and people with respiratory or serious health conditions were advised to stay indoors.

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