Firefighters battling the massive King fire showed signs of progress Sunday night, while smoke forced the cancellation of a popular Lake Tahoe sporting event and worsened air quality over a large swath of foothills.
By 7 p.m. more than 5,500 people fighting the fire managed to contain 17 percent of the blaze, up from 10 percent Sunday morning, said Battalion Chief Scott McLean. The number of acres burned held steady at 82,018.
“This is really good news. There has been no forward movement,” McLean said. “Hats off to those on the fire lines.”
McLean said he expects the lower temperatures and higher humidity to continue through the night, allowing firefighters to more easily go 200 to 300 feet inside the fire’s perimeter to cut down and remove dead or dying trees and to put out “hot spots” that are still smoldering, including logs, stumps, tree roots and brush.
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“We have a lot of work to do,” he said. “But fire lines are progressively being installed.”
Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service have set two community meetings for area residents Monday night–both at 7 p.m. One will be at Golden Sierra High School, 5105 Garden Valley Road in Garden Valley. The other is set for Camino Seventh-day Adventist Church, 3520 Carson Road, Camino.
The fire has consumed nearly 130 square miles of Sierra terrain since Sept. 13.
Early Sunday, Ironman Lake Tahoe officials announced the cancellation of the grueling event, disappointing the 3,000 athletes assembled to compete.
“It is bad. It smells and feels like you’re inside of a barbecue grill,” would-be competitor Barrett Brandon said of the air at Squaw Valley, which has a base elevation of 6,200 feet. “It was a tough call but the right one.”
Race officials pulled the plug on the competition. But Placer County public health and air-quality officials said they agreed with the decision.
“As much as we were all looking forward to this event, I am confident that the cancellation was the right decision to protect the health of the athletes and the public,” said Dr. Robert Oldham, Placer County’s public health officer.
The King fire – believed to be the result of arson – is the largest wildfire on record to hit the six-county Sacramento region. Authorities have arrested 37-year-old Wayne Huntsman of Pollock Pines on suspicion of arson. He is being held in lieu of $10 million bail.
Firefighters used Sunday’s favorable weather to stamp out hot spots and work the fire lines. But McLean said the improving conditions were no reason to relax the firefight. The blaze, which has consumed 10 homes and 22 other structures, forced the evacuation of 2,800 people. It still threatens 12,000 residences.
Shifting weather conditions altered the spread of smoke. Saturday evening, it had moved into the Sacramento Valley, diffusing sunlight and making for a stunning sunset. Air quality moved into the unhealthy range for much of the foothills from Placerville to Grass Valley.
The smoky pollution consists of tiny particulates known as PM2.5 – a description of material 2.5 microns or smaller. Such particles are tiny enough to penetrate deep into airways in the lungs and pass into the bloodstream. Heavy and prolonged exposure can cause breathing problems and contribute to heart disease and heart attacks, air officials say.
Ann Hobbs, a Placer County air-quality specialist, advised residents living in heavy smoke areas to hunker down indoors until the air improves.
Lorraine Hardy, manager of Historic Cary House Hotel in Placerville, said she had seen some improvement throughout Sunday.
Paul Raj, owner of the Colfax Market near Interstate 80, said the heavy smoke was starting to make some people moody.
“It’s getting worse and worse,” Raj said.
The visibility at the Truckee Tahoe airport dipped to a quarter-mile early Sunday but improved later in the day. The airport remained open, although many pilots chose to land elsewhere, an airport official said.
Ironman contender Brandon put Squaw Valley visibility at around 100 yards. When he picked up his shoes from the buildings near the mountain ski lifts, he said, the mountain was obscured by smoke.
“It was beautiful yesterday, but the wind shifted,” he said.
Peter Carroll of Davis, who competed in Ironman last year, said he doubted that many competitors would have finished the event had it gone forward.
“It’s one thing to do a two-hour event,” he said. “But it’s another thing to do a 12- to 17-hour event.”
He said the competitors had to be disappointed after spending so much time preparing. Last year, he said, a third of the field didn’t finish the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run because of snowfall.
Carroll Wills, a race volunteer from Elk Grove, said he had a bad feeling about prospects for the race when he arrived.
“It felt unhealthy just walking around carrying things to the aid station,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine athletes doing a triathlon.
“You could feel it in your eyes. You could smell it. There was no wind, so it was just a big hanging layer.”