Gold Country residents got a firsthand look Saturday at the extreme fire danger California faces as the Sand fire blazed through forests and homes in El Dorado and Amador counties and forced hundreds of people to flee their homes with only minutes of warning.
The fire, which erupted late Friday and had burned 1,300 acres by Saturday morning, exploded later in the day to consume 4,000 acres as an army of 1,464 firefighters and helicopters and planes battled to keep it at bay. A vehicle driving over dry vegetation caused the fire, said Chris Anthony, a Cal Fire spokesman, late Saturday.
By late Saturday, the fire was only 20 percent contained and more than 1,200 people had been evacuated, sending a stream of residents fleeing the rural roads of the area with whatever they could pack into their vehicles. An estimated 515 homes were threatened by the blaze burning east of Highway 49, 5 miles north of Plymouth. As of late Saturday, the fire had destroyed five homes and seven other buildings.
“We just wanted to get out of there, and hope there’s something left when we get back,” 65-year-old Alfred Shults said Saturday as he waited for news at an evacuation center set up at the El Dorado County fairgrounds in Placerville.
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Shults, his wife, Carolyn, and their 21-year-old granddaughter Jessica fled their home on Freshwater Lane in El Dorado County at 7 p.m. Friday after receiving an automated telephone call ordering residents to get out.
Shults said he saw the fire blazing at the end of his street and packed as much as he could into his vehicle before joining a parade of 10 neighbors driving away from the flames.
Before he left, he said, he turned on a sprinkler to soak the area around his beloved motorcycle, hoping the water might save it, and the family spent Saturday trading rumors and checking updates online to see if they could learn the fate of their home.
“I hope that’s not my tree, I hope that’s not my house,” Carolyn Shults said as she surveyed photos of fire damage on news sites.
Saturday afternoon, Shults got a text message from his neighbor telling him that the neighbor’s home was surrounded by flames.
“In this area, there’s bears, mountain lions and wild pigs, but we’re not afraid of any of those wild animals,” he said. “The only natural disaster we’re afraid of is fire.”
Early in the day, officials were saying 750 people had been displaced by the fire, but by Saturday afternoon another 450 homes were ordered evacuated and the evacuation center for residents was moved from the fairgrounds to larger quarters at Ponderosa High School in Shingle Springs, where American Red Cross spokesman David Kennedy said as many as 400 people were expected.
Chris Anthony, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman, said firefighters were dealing with tricky, steep terrain.
“This is in a fairly rural area, steeper drainages, access is difficult, so that’s a factor in this fire’s growth and potential, because it’s so steep,” he said.
But, he added, no one was surprised at the fire’s rapid growth.
“Given the drought we’ve been experiencing over the last three years and just how dry things are throughout the whole state, this really isn’t that unexpected,” Anthony said. “This is what Cal Fire has been preparing for, really, all winter long. We started staffing our fire engines in January because we knew this was the reality we were going to face this summer.”
Evidence of the forces Cal Fire was marshaling could be seen throughout the area. Along Highway 49, firefighters ferried large equipment – including bulldozers and water tankers – to the front lines as some of the normally bustling Amador County vineyards hung out signs that read ‘Sorry, Closed today.’ ”
Most of the wineries remained open and officials said none appeared to be in danger Saturday from the blaze, but area residents were deeply concerned as they watched the smoke overhead and helicopters and airplanes dropping water and fire retardant on the blaze.
Lydia Miller, who lives about 5 miles from the fire, drove around and took pictures of the smoke plumes.
“I think we’re in trouble with this one,” said the lifelong area resident as she stood on the side of Shenandoah Road.
Miller’s husband and daughter were busy packing bags at home in anticipation of an evacuation order.
Nearby, a few River Pines residents gathered at the town’s general store.
“We’re very worried,” said Teresa Lau, the store’s owner. “What can you do? We need to save our lives.”
Claire van Dam said she was swimming Friday afternoon in the Cosumnes River near her Upton Road home when she smelled smoke.
She said she tried to return to her property Friday night but was turned back by firefighters.
“At that point, it was just huge,” she said, describing the blaze.
On Saturday, she was grappling with what she said was the expected loss of her weekend home, a 40-acre property in the fire zone.
“It’s probably in ruins by now,” she said.
In addition to the firefighters, helicopters, small planes and a DC-10 air tanker could be seen flying repeated missions overhead. One observer watched the DC-10 drop four loads of retardant in a four-hour span.
Despite the huge stacks of smoke rising from the hills, the smell of smoke wasn’t in the air for large swaths of El Dorado and Amador counties because winds had taken it elsewhere.
Early Saturday, the strong smell of smoke from the fire blanketed much of Sacramento, and officials said it would affect air quality Sunday in the region.
A high-pressure weather system will bring smoke from the fire into areas west of the timber and grass fire – with smoke visiting the Sacramento region early Sunday, said Drew Peterson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
That means that residents – especially those with asthma and respiratory issues – will have to be prepared if they want to avoid breathing smoke that comes into the Sacramento Valley.
Typically, when fires burn in conditions similar to the Sand fire, the smoke plume rises as a column in the afternoon and early evening, then descends through the early morning hours and drains into the Valley, Peterson said.
But worrying about smoke was not the primary focus for residents wondering about the fate of their homes.
Elizabeth Bulloch said Saturday that her home was among the first threatened, forcing a hurried evacuation.
“We saw a huge plume of smoke yesterday afternoon, and it was coming toward us very quickly,” she said. “We had about 20 minutes to pack up all of our important stuff. We saw our neighbor’s cabin go up in flames on TV.”
Bulloch added that her thoughts were with the firefighters battling to save homes in the fire zone.
“We’re just hoping and praying that the firefighters will be safe,” she said. “We don’t want anyone hurt.”