At the family home in the golden hills three miles west of Winters, the extended Marler family had gathered for Peter Marler’s final hours. The retired UC Davis professor, 86, had been in poor health for some time and was receiving hospice care.
Christopher Marler had come from Rwanda, where he’s a consultant for the government. His sister and her daughters had flown in from Wisconsin.
As the Fourth of July gave way to the weekend, fire glowed over nearby ridges. And the call came: Along with residents of nearby Golden Bear Estates, the Marlers were under a mandatory evacuation order from a blaze that into Sunday would churn through 6,488 drought-parched acres.
At 4 a.m. Saturday, as thick smoke blanketed the hillsides and canyons, Peter Marler was taken by paramedics to Davis. He died there in a nursing home that afternoon. Now family members, temporarily relocated to Davis, try to piece together plans for the memorial – and worry about when they’ll be allowed back to their parents’ house, where Peter and Judith Marler lived since 1989.
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“If this was in a movie, you wouldn’t believe it,” said Christopher Marler, 55, who was waiting for information on the fire in the Winters Community Center, where the American Red Cross had set up a shelter for evacuees.
On Sunday night, mandatory evacuations were lifted for Golden Bear Estates and nearby areas.
Dubbed the Monticello fire, the blaze began late Friday evening near the Monticello Dam on the southeast shore of Lake Berryessa. By Monday morning, it was 35 percent contained. Plumes of smoke rose steadily from the wooded canyons west of Winters, the kind of remote and inaccessible terrain that Cal Fire spokesman Tom Piriano said would require firefighters to be flown in to fight the fire.
The Monticello fire was one in a series of fires that sparked in the Sacramento region over the weekend, leaving the skies dense with a layer of smoke and the air quality poor. The Butts Canyon fire, which began July 1 just northwest of Lake Berryessa, consumed 4,300 acres and destroyed two residences and seven outbuildings – but it was 90 percent contained by Monday morning, according to Cal Fire officials.
“They moved us over here to fight this new fire because we were in the neighborhood,” said Cal Fire spokeswoman Julie Cooley.
About 1,600 firefighters, including from the Winters Fire Department and fire agencies from Napa, Yolo and Solano counties, were deployed to the Monticello fire, which comes near the beginning of California’s long, hot summer of historic drought.
“Our vegetation has dried out considerably more now than last year at this time,” said Cal Fire’s Larry Pendarvis. “Our volume of fire has increased 70 percent over this time last year.”
The fire increased significantly on Saturday, burgeoning from 1,500 acres to 6,488, but a southwesterly wind on Sunday morning pushed it away from inhabited areas.
It was intended to be a weekend of remembrance for Philip and Lorna Yoder, Vacaville residents who spent the Fourth of July with 16 family members at Canyon Creek Resort. On July 6, 2013, their 22-year-old son, Philip Jr. or P.J., died at the RV park of complications related to an enlarged heart.
“He was having a good time at a family barbecue, and he collapsed under a tree,” said Philip Yoder, a heavy equipment operator. “We were going to have a candlelight vigil for him.”
Instead, heavy smoke forced them to drive out of the park at 9:30 p.m. Friday, leaving their RV and belongings there.
Visitors brought about 60 RVs to Canyon Creek for the weekend, said Jane Moody, a Canyon Creek security employee who also evacuated and was staying at the Winters Community Center.
“If people weren’t already packed up, they just bolted in their cars,” she said.
She was heading home on Sunday. Although Highway 128 west of Winters was closed from Highway 121 to Pleasant Valley Road, the Canyon Creek evacuation order had been lifted, and she knew of a back road into the park.
“Once I got my dog out, that’s all that mattered to me,” she said. “Nobody got hurt. That’s what matters. The rest of it is just stuff.”