Series of wildfires charring Contra Costa County – more than 650 acres burned near Clayton

Fire crews battled large grass fires in a rural part of the East Bay near Mount Diablo State Park Saturday, said Cal Fire officials, the same area that burned a year ago almost to the day.

Together, 12 separate fires had merged into three larger ones, burning roughly 655 acres by the mid-afternoon Saturday and were 50 percent contained, said Jonathan Cox, a division chief with Cal Fire. One firefighter was hospitalized for minor injuries related to the heat, Cox said. No buildings or homes have been lost.

The fire started sometime around 3:15 a.m., in the 7000 block of Morgan Territory Road, he said. Shortly thereafter, crews received reports of several more fires along Morgan Territory and Marsh Creek roads, he said. The area is nestled at the base of Mount Diablo, not far from the Marsh Creek Detention Facility. Investigators are looking into the cause of the fires.

Kathy Neubecker, who lives close to the jail, awoke in the middle of the night to neighbors pounding on her door and police sirens blaring, ordering her and her neighbors to evacuate. That was sometime around 4 a.m., she said.

“It’s dark:30, and you don’t know what’s happening,” Neubecker said. “It’s full panic mode.”

She had been through this before. A year and roughly one week ago, the same area burned, destroying one home and three outbuildings along Marsh Creek Road. That time, she was away from her house and unable to get back to her beloved dog, Molly, who was still inside her home when evacuations were ordered. After a sleepless night spent waiting at a road block, an animal control officer was able to retrieve the dog and reunite them, she said.

What she didn’t realize then was that a Marin firefighter operating a bulldozer had helped save Molly. He greeted her and her dog on Saturday with affection, she said.

“He remembered my dog Molly and came right up to her and said, ‘Molly, it’s so good to see you again,’” Neubecker said.

This time, when the officers came knocking, she sprang into action, hosing down her yard and house. Her and her neighbors refused to leave right away, choosing instead to monitor the fire from the top of a hill. They could see it burning in the distance, but weren’t sure how far away it was, she said.

The area where the fire started is marked by steep hillsides and grassy canyons, Cox said. Crews benefited from low winds and high humidity levels early in the morning, but as the afternoon warmed up, Cox said they were also battling uncharacteristically high temperatures.

“Crews are making really good progress out there,” Cox said. “The good news is there aren’t that many large fires burning in the state right now, so crew availability is high.”

He said they were cautiously optimistic they would be able to fully contain the fire soon.