Fire crews massed manpower and materiel against a stubborn Sierra Nevada wildfire Sunday as volunteers unleashed a major effort to save stranded animals.
More than 1,200 people have been evacuated during the three-day fire, which had devoured about 4,000 acres by Sunday evening and was expected to require several more days to contain. The fire, by Sunday, had destroyed 10 residences and seven outbuildings, and caused one injury.
Many residents were allowed to return to the area Sunday – if only to confirm for fragile moments whether their homes were still standing.
David Roberts, 70, and Bill Cleek, 58, made it back early in the morning to discover several sleeping units in charred ruins at the Rancho Cicada Retreat they own on the Cosumnes River in Plymouth. A mangled metal shed held the torched remains of one of Roberts’ 15 vintage cars. Thirteen of his cars were destroyed in the fire. Two were saved.
On Friday, the men had rushed to round up 45 camp guests in time for them to escape “as the fire was already crossing the river,” Cleek said. On Sunday, the two men were offering thanks for the firefighters who saved their home, along with the resort’s kitchens, bathrooms and a historic 1938 cabin.
“It hits me in waves,” Cleek said of the mixed emotions of sadness and relief he felt. “You just kind of keep a stiff upper lip.”
Elsewhere Sunday, residents in the El Dorado County and Amador County region – with convoys of trailer-hauling vehicles – remained in full mobilization mode.
In the region of oak- and pine-studded horse properties, livestock farms and pet-friendly country estates, word spread through social media and urgent neighbor-to-neighbor calls about animals that were still trapped near or amid charred and smoldering hillsides. Rescue orders went out.
In the southern El Dorado County town of Somerset, Pioneer Park was converted into a major staging area for horse and livestock trailers and heavy pickups. Drivers awaited orders on where animals needed to be pulled out to safety.
Just around the bend, on Mount Aukum Road, Stacie Zakstorn, 26, headed a caravan of vehicles arriving to rescue 87 alpacas at the Retiredice Alpacas Ranch. There in the smoke and sweltering heat, signs at the ranch advertised the warming benefits of alpaca wool.
“We just have to get behind them and start shoving them into a trailer,” Zakstorn said. By Sunday afternoon, volunteers had packed up 60 of the alpacas to take them to a farm safely out of the fire zone in Diamond Springs.
On Saturday night, Zakstorn had driven out to save five horses and a donkey on another property. Her neighbor, Dustin Carroll, drove into the same area to load up pigs and goats at another home.
Paige Romine, owner of Retiredice Alpacas, had held out as late afternoon winds caused the blaze to jump fire lines Saturday. But amid the smoke and clamor of Sunday morning, with 1,500 firefighters, aircraft and hundreds of engines and dozers battling the blaze, the alpaca ranch owner and her charges were in full panic. She needed help.
“The fire isn’t near yet, but the smoke is,” Romine said. “They (the alpacas) panicked and we panicked, and then all of our stress made things worse for the alpacas.”
On a Facebook page called El Dorado County Watch, residents were sharing updates on the fire and urgent word on stranded animals. Offers poured in for trailers or feed. And when a warning went online about alpacas in danger, Romine had rescuers racing to her.
“It is wonderful that so many people have jumped on this to help us out,” she said Sunday afternoon as two trucks and trailers were backed into her driveway and two more were waiting on the road. “It’s amazing.”
Air tankers and water-dropping helicopters were flying overhead late Saturday afternoon, when Patrick Sutter, 48, rushed to trailer his horses, an Arabian named Dude and an American Paint named Romeo. He also led out his goat, Alice.
“The smoke was coming up, and there was burnt debris all over our vehicles,” said Sutter, who got his animals safely to a rescue area at the El Dorado County Fairgrounds. His family, including his wife and their visiting daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter, made it to a Red Cross shelter set up at Ponderosa High School in Shingle Springs.
But as black cinders rained down, several neighbors who didn’t have trailers for their animals had to evacuate without taking them. Some cut openings in farm fencing to give horses and other animals a chance to flee. Volunteers came to round them up.
Some 15 horses and a miniature horse were being housed in corrals Sunday afternoon at the El Dorado County Fairgrounds. Numerous small animals were taken to Ponderosa High School.
By midday Sunday, the Amador County Fairgrounds had taken in 12 horses, seven rabbits, 15 chickens, two dogs, three cats and seven goats, said Karen Spencer, the fair’s marketing director. “We’re right in the middle of our fair, but our livestock people are just moving over and making room,” she said.
Melissa Alexander took in four horses late Saturday night at her Rock Barn Ranch stables and put out word on social media Sunday that she had plenty of room for more. “We’re opening our barns to any kinds of animals. We’ve got 20 stalls and lots of pasture,” she said.
Despite continued winds Sunday, fire crews appeared to be maintaining fire lines as the blaze was reported to be 50 percent contained. The once-towering flames had given way to drifting but less ominous smoke.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman Lynn Tolmachoff said it could take until the first week of August to fully extinguish the hot spots under “the worst-case scenario.”
“The containment is hopefully going to be growing daily,” Tolmachoff said. “As long as the flames don’t do what they did yesterday (Saturday) – and blow up and jump fire lines – we’re doing good.”
At the Red Cross emergency shelter set up at Ponderosa High School, numerous volunteers provided food, clothing and air-conditioned rooms for about 50 people stranded by the fire. Most were merely tired and awaiting word on when they could return to their homes.
But Red Cross workers tended to one distressed woman, who was tethered to an oxygen tank, and mental health counselors offered help to others needed emotional support. “There is a lot of anxiety going on,” said Red Cross volunteer Melissa Webber.