Before fireworks shot into the sky Friday night, flames swept through parched brush behind Cal Expo and threatened to cancel the area’s biggest pyrotechnic display.
Thousands of swimsuit-clad visitors abandoned giant water slides under an evacuation order at Raging Waters at Cal Expo. Particulate-choked air near Bonney Field was enough for Sacramento Republic FC to turn away the region’s soccer-crazed fans for one night.
But that night – the Fourth of July – would still have its traditional fireworks, Cal Expo and fire officials determined in the end, allowing colorful explosions to burst forth across a sky blanketed by smoke hours earlier.
As California faces the worst drought in a generation, firefighters were stretched across the Sacramento region Friday as flames threatened structures and celebrations. Ashes fell miles from where fires laid waste to dry brush, while backyards and living rooms smelled of barbecue even where grills were absent.
Just north of Antelope, an alleged arson grass fire burned down four homes at the Sabre City Mobile Home Park and forced residents to evacuate, one of a dozen blazes the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection handled Friday in the region. Cal Fire already had doused more than 2,715 fires in the first six months of the year, almost 900 more than usual.
Behind Cal Expo, flames spread through dry grass and leaped into trees in the urban wild between the fairgrounds and American River. Along a fence line, a collection of wooden benches and two palm trees burned while sprinklers and fire hoses sprayed in defense. The 40-acre fire scorched an area rarely observed by fairgoers and mostly seen as a yellow blur by passing cyclists and runners along the American River Parkway.
“It’s in a wildland brush and tree area,” said Larry Savage, assistant chief at Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District. “Because of the drought, it’s extremely dry.”
Smoke from the Cal Expo fire was visible throughout much of the city and nearby suburbs after the fire began about 1:30 p.m. One firefighter suffered a minor injury, and 10 vehicles on the Cal Expo grounds were damaged. By 5:30 p.m., dozens of fire units from across the region had controlled the blaze.
Sacramento Fire Chief Walt White said there was no indication yet of how the fire started.
As firefighters battled flames in near-100-degree heat, scores of families sat outside Cal Expo in cars, on sidewalks and under shade as they awaited word on whether the fireworks show would survive. A line of vehicles stretched down Exposition Boulevard to the freeway.
Organizers originally expected 10,000 people to show. Some stood outside the gates and tried to avoid the heat by eating cold sandwiches and popsicles.
“Might as well make the best of it,” said Emily Gutierrez, who drove nearly two hours from Riverbank.
But not all were as calm. Jackie Thornton, of Sacramento, brought a grill for her family’s annual tailgate party in the parking lot before the fireworks show.
“I don’t know if they will allow us to bring the barbecue stuff,” she said. “This will certainly disappoint my grandson.”
A sold-out crowd of 8,000 hoping to watch Sacramento Republic FC face the Orange County Blues had to find other plans. Team officials, after consulting with Sacramento fire officials, determined that air on the west side of Cal Expo where Bonney Field sits was too unhealthy for a 7:30 p.m. soccer match.
On an afternoon when temperatures soared into the upper 90s, officials evacuated about 3,000 people from the slides and pools at Raging Waters due to concerns about smoke inhalation.
“They told us over the loudspeaker to evacuate,” said Shannon Jones, who brought her 7-year old daughter Zhanyla to Raging Waters. “There was no security; it was chaotic.”
Cal Expo organizers said wind patterns had done a better job of clearing the air on the eastern side of the fairgrounds, enough to let thousands of visitors enter a grandstand area normally used for horse races. “We have not received a recommendation from public safety to cancel,” said Cal Expo CEO Rick Pickering.
About 2 1/2 hours after the scheduled 5 p.m. start of the holiday celebration, patrons spilled through the gates as rock music blared. Smoke was barely visible, but long lines for food and drinks could be seen throughout.
Randy Schatzle of San Andreas said he had attended the Cal Expo fireworks event for 20 straight years. The brush fire, he said, wasn’t about to stop him from making it 21 years. He stretched out in his lawn chair while his 3-year-old grandson Ayden played nearby.
“We could see it coming in from Jackson Highway,” Schatzle said. “But it’s no problem now.”
Erica Stephens and Billie Washington ate cherry snow cones, while Washington’s 7-month-old daughter Reese was sound asleep in a stroller. The two roommates from North Highlands first learned of the fire when they walked out of Arden Fair mall before heading to the fireworks show.
“We weren’t going to leave until we knew the fireworks were canceled,” Stephens said, chuckling. “I waited four hours, I better get to see some fireworks.”
Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang. Bee staff writer Edward Ortiz contributed to this report.