Wildfires came once again Monday to a region of Northern California that has endured more than its share of misery this year.
Six separate wildfires roared through Yuba, Butte and Nevada counties, scorching nearly 20,000 acres, prompting mandatory evacuations of thousands of residents and blowing the acrid smell of smoke as far south as Sacramento. Rural evacuees were forced to take horses and other livestock with them – or, in some agonizing cases, leave them behind.
Fueled by howling autumn winds, the fires stretched from Oroville to points east of Marysville and cut across communities that had endured a round of wildfires in July and August and a near-catastrophe at Oroville Dam in February. Republican Assemblyman James Gallagher, who represents the area, said he was told by emergency officials that 100 homes in Yuba and Butte counties may have burned, although there was no immediate confirmation of that figure.
The Cascade fire northeast of Marysville appeared to do the most harm. It consumed more than 11,500 acres by early Tuesday and left a twisted, fickle path of destruction through the tiny communities of Loma Rica and Browns Valley. The smoking ruins of some homes sat just a few feet from others that went completely untouched. Some livestock in Loma Rica continued to graze in spite of the smoke, while scores of other large animals were evacuated along with their owners. The fire was 15 percent contained by early Tuesday.
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Scores of roads were closed in the three-county area, including portions of major arteries such as Marysville Road and Highway 20. Along a lengthy stretch of Marysville Road heading into Loma Rica, patches of land were burned pitch black, dotted with flecks of gray ash as smaller fires continued to smolder. Power poles and transmission lines were draped across roads and farm fields.
Hundreds of displaced residents of Loma Rica and other burned-out communities found themselves on cots at emergency shelters set up at fairgrounds, churches and other sites across the Sacramento Valley. Many of them had been alerted by sheriff’s deputies who went door to door in Loma Rica and other fire-ravaged communities early Monday morning.
“It’s wild to wake up out of a dead sleep and start running outside,” said Rick McIntire, who was awakened at his Loma Rica home by the sound of car horns as neighbors fled flames that were just a few houses away.
He was spending the afternoon in his pickup truck, where he’d been since 3 a.m., parked at a Union 76 gas station at Highway 20 and Marysville Road near Browns Valley. The gas station had turned into a makeshift evacuation center that had been drawing displaced residents since dawn; employee Carla Weber was passing out coffee and bottled water to firefighters and displaced residents.
“There is nowhere else for people to go around here,” she said. “This is our little community.”
At the north end of Yuba County, the LaPorte fire chewed up 3,500 acres along the Butte County line. The Cherokee fire destroyed 7,500 acres immediately north of Oroville and was 40 percent contained by early Tuesday. A late-blooming fire in Butte County burned just a few dozen acres as of Monday evening but was already forcing neighborhoods southwest of Paradise to evacuate.
Two smaller fires were burning in Nevada County, the Lobo fire northwest of Grass Valley and the McCourtney fire south of the city. Even those relatively small blazes caused hardships as more than 3,600 homes were told to evacuate, many in the Lake Wildwood community.
Cal Fire battalion chief Jeremy Rahn said the Cascade, LaPorte, Lobo and McCourtney blazes were considered branches of one giant fire, collectively known as the Wind Complex.
The Nevada County Fairgrounds became a command center and temporary home to displaced farm animals. Someone used a Sharpie to scrawl her phone number on a horse she left at the fairgrounds. Nearby, tents were being pitched to house prison inmates who were brought in to help fight the fires.
As firefighters struggled to contain the blazes, the National Weather Service offered some encouragement. Craig Shoemaker, a meteorologist with the weather service in Sacramento, said the wind gusts that have caused the fires to explode would begin tailing off by Monday evening. The air was expected to get more humid, and temperatures were forecast to dip into the high 40s at night, Shoemaker said.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for all three counties, while Pacific Gas and Electric Co. crews scrambled to deal with power lines and utility poles that went down. In one Loma Rica neighborhood, PG&E crews warned first responders to keep their distance from a power pole that was tilting at a 45-degree angle.
PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno said a number of power lines tumbled in the wind that swept across Northern California late Sunday night. Asked if the lines could have sparked any of the fires, he deferred to Cal Fire. Officials at Cal Fire said investigations were just getting under way.
Cal Fire blamed PG&E for the devastating 2015 Butte fire, saying the fire was started after a power line ignited a tree. The fire killed two people and charred 70,000 acres in Calaveras and Amador counties. Cal Fire said it would seek millions from PG&E for firefighting costs, and earlier this year the state Public Utilities Commission slapped the utility with an $8.3 million fine.
Even where the fires had reduced to embers Monday, numerous dangers remained. Brown’s Gas Co. was pulling delivery trucks and other equipment from its location in Oregon House, east of Loma Rica, out of fear that propane tanks could explode.
Yuba County residents told harrowing tales of waking up to roaring fires in their neighborhoods. In Loma Rica, Matt Minter saw a “wall of flame” a few doors down the street. He then discovered trees were blocking his driveway. He cleared an escape path with his tractor and fled with his wife, brother and sister-in-law.
Hours later, Minter walked ten miles back to his home – emergency personnel wouldn’t let him drive – to give water to the 12,000 squab he raises. The pigeons were fine, as it turned out.
Christina Keller of Loma Rica was jolted awake by howling winds that blew off a portion of her greenhouse roof. When she went outside, she saw the “glow of the flames. Soon after, she got a phone alert from county officials. She and her parents and sister evacuated to the Yuba-Sutter fairgrounds in Yuba City with nine dogs and a cat. But Keller had to leave her Appaloosa horse, Vicka, behind in Loma Rica.
The Yuba-Sutter fairgrounds also became home temporarily for Heather Sutton and her mother, Debra Sutton. They fled the Browns Valley area and arrived at the fairgrounds with a pickup truck and Buick crammed with whatever they could pack in a few minutes: framed photos, cut-glass candy plates, statues of Siamese cats and more. They had to pack in the dark because the power had gone out.
“You just kind of grab photographs and documents and kids and pets,” Debra Sutton said.
Some ignored the evacuation orders. Lucy and Carl Cortez, both in their 70s, figured they’d be safe and chose to stay with their cows and llamas on their property along Pony Express Road in the Loma Rica area.
“You have them for so long, they are like family,” said Lucy Cortez, who was reading a seed catalog Monday afternoon in her living room. Their property withstood the fire with just minor damage.
Some residents who lost power said they didn’t get any kind of heads-up until the last minute. Jacky Valdez of LaPorte and her three young children awoke early Monday when a Yuba sheriff’s deputy knocked on her door. Lacking transportation, Valdez and her children were driven by the deputy to Marysville, where they were handed off to another deputy who took them to the fairgrounds.
Unofficial shelters were opening as well. Rafael De La Torre, the owner of Los Arcos Livestock Feed Store on Hallwood Boulevard outside Marysville, said he was received frantic phone calls and text messages from neighbors asking to keep their livestock at his store.
“We’re open to help anybody as much as we can,” said De La Torre, who said he was jolted awake at around 2 a.m. by sirens on Highway 20.
Much of Butte and Yuba counties were evacuated for two days in early February after officials feared the emergency flood-control spillway at Oroville Dam was going to give way. Then the Wall fire torched 41 homes in the Oroville area in early July, followed by the Ponderosa fire in late August, which burned 32 more residences.
“Man, this has not been a great year for us in the 3rd Assembly District,” said Gallagher, the state assemblyman.
The latest disaster struck his family personally. Gallagher said his cousin and her husband lost their home in Loma Rica late Sunday or early Monday.