Fires

Firefighters dig in for the long haul against El Dorado’s King fire

By Peter Hecht - phecht@sacbee.com

September 18, 2014 12:00 AM

UPDATED October 08, 2014 12:21 PM

A ravenous wildfire in El Dorado County devoured swaths of forested terrain for a fifth day Wednesday, leaving nearly 2,200 residents displaced as fire crews battled to protect homes, lives and a major thoroughfare.

The King fire, which broke out Saturday east of Pollock Pines, forced the evacuation of more than 1,600 homes by Wednesday and ballooned with new fury.

Topping 27,900 acres by Wednesday evening, the blaze had scorched an additional 15,000 acres alone since Tuesday night and forced intermittent closures of Highway 50 near Fresh Pond.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday declared a state of emergency in El Dorado and Siskiyou counties because of the effects of the King and Boles fires. The latter fire, which destroyed 150 structures in Weed, had burned 375 acres and was 60 percent contained as of Wednesday night, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

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“The wildfires in Northern California serve as a reminder that dry conditions can be the precursor to devastating loss,” Brown said in his proclamation.

“We are faced with a large and dangerous fire, and the fire has grown significantly,” said Laurence Crabtree, U.S. Forest Service supervisor for the Eldorado National Forest. “We have had significant losses of public timberland, private timberland and watershed.”

State and federal officials said crews might have to battle the blaze – now just 5 percent contained – for up to two more weeks. Yet, despite its destructive force, no homes had been destroyed by Wednesday and only two minor injuries to firefighters have been reported.

Fire crews were setting controlled burns north of the freeway and scouting for flying embers to prevent the blaze from leaping to more tinder-dry terrain south of the highway.

With swirling winds fanning the massive wildfire, they also were trying to keep flames from shooting up canyons beneath residential communities.

Firefighters were cutting fire lines and keeping watch on two ravines, Bushy Canyon and Slab Creek, where they feared flames could hurdle toward the evacuated, 400-home Swansboro Country community above the American River.

“We are establishing a line in the sand,” said Robert Little, a Cal Fire spokesman. “And as any trigger points are hit, we throw more resources into those areas.”

Little said fire crews, including more than 2,400 firefighters, would continue to be fortified with additional manpower and equipment.

Additional mobilizations unfolded Wednesday as Red Cross volunteers rallied to shelter stranded residents and animal rescue groups assumed care for a vast array of livestock, farm animals and pets.

At the El Dorado County Fairgrounds, the main fire staging area, volunteers provided feed and care Wednesday afternoon for 30 goats, 24 horses, three steers, one donkey, six sheep, 29 chicken, six turkeys, four pheasants and a macaw.

“The first 24 hours are a challenge,” said Aimee Vukovich of the El Dorado County rescue group SCLAR, who said private ranchers were also stepping forward to house animals and area feed stores were donating food.

“The horses are agitated when they first get here,” Vukovich said, looking at a thriving farm in a vast pen at the fairgrounds. “Several just paced around and paced around for 12 hours.”

Rich SaintCroix, who fled his Swansboro Country home with a virtual ark of animals, was delighted with the volunteer efforts at the fairgrounds.

“I have a donkey here and a thoroughbred here and 14 goats and some feathered friends,” SaintCroix said. “And this group (of volunteers) is just doing an outstanding job.”

Elsewhere, SaintCroix’s wife was minding their “inside animals” – three dogs, two cats, a rabbit and two box turtles – in a family car.

“The only ones we couldn’t take were the koi fish,” he said of the inhabitants of the decorative pond at their Swansboro home. “We hope they’re OK.”

Fire officials say only a limited number of residents have been allowed to return to their homes.

At the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Camino, more than 500 displaced residents gathered for a community meeting only to be told that the fire was still too unpredictable for many to go home.

Red Cross spokesman Heath Wakelee said 50 people slept at the shelter Tuesday night.

In addition to meals being served by volunteers, the shelter had a nurse and mental health professionals on site. Another church organization, The Southern Baptist Convention, brought in a truck with showers and washers and driers for residents who may be displaced for a while.

“I would say the mood is more positive,” Wakelee said Wednesday. “Most of the people feel their homes are safe. They just don’t know, and want more information.”

Swansboro Country neighbors Victor Garcia and Tillie Holtrop spent part of Wednesday introducing their border collies – Garcia’s male, Mitch, and Holtrop’s female, Martha – and walking the dogs around a shaded parking lot outside the temporary shelter.

“There is no sense in worrying about it,” Holtrop said of the fire and uncertainty of when residents could return. “It will only make my hair gray.”

Garcia, whose wife was staying with friends while continuing working as an oncology nurse in Sacramento, said he figured that he and Mitch might settle in at the shelter for a few more nights.

“It’s kind of surreal,” Garcia said, recalling how he had watched the fire billow far from his home before having to evacuate. “And when you realize what is happening, it puts your heart in your throat.

“We still have not lost anything. The fire is away from Swansboro. But it’s kind of dicey. It’s all up to the wind direction and the high pressure and temperature.”

Cal Fire spokesman Little said scattered thunder storms could bring rain over the fire area – but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

“If we get thunderstorm activity, we could get erratic winds underneath each thunderstorm cell,” Little said.

Steve Heine, a captain from the Marinwood Fire Department in Marin County, said he was amazed by the spread of the blaze during the night Tuesday and early morning Wednesday.

“At 3 a.m., we saw a lot of fire activity,” said Heine, who was part of a 22-member team backing up crews trying to stop the fire’s spread by setting control burns near Stumpy Meadows Lake in the Eldorado National Forest.

“Normally, a fire lays down at night. We didn’t see that,” he said. “Everything is so dry and dead because of the drought that keeps the fire moving.”