Wildfire near Cool in El Dorado County forces evacuations; two firefighters injured

Country Fire evacuees tell their story in El Dorado County

A wildfire in rural El Dorado County near Cool spurred evacuations Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019. Evacuees talk about what they saw and their concerns about evacuating during a wildfire.
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A wildfire in rural El Dorado County near Cool spurred evacuations Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019. Evacuees talk about what they saw and their concerns about evacuating during a wildfire.

Update at 8 a.m. Wednesday: The Country Fire is 30 percent contained. Read more here.

A wildfire in rural El Dorado County forced evacuation of residents in the hills northeast of the town of Cool on Tuesday afternoon, burning several structures and injuring two firefighters before settling down as evening arrived.

It was the second blaze in two weeks to threaten residences in Northern California during what has otherwise been a quiet summer by recent California wildfire season standards. The Mountain Fire east of Redding in late August also prompted evacuations.

By evening, responders had stopped the fire’s forward movement and air tankers had been called off, although ground crews continued to fight hot spots in the wooded hills near Highway 193 between Cool and Georgetown.

The fired, dubbed the Country Fire, had burned 85 acres and was 25 percent contained as of 7:30 p.m., Cal Fire reported. Four structures were reported burned, three out-buildings and one modular structure.

“Firefighters are making great progress on the fire and forward progress has stopped,” Cal Fire said in an evening update. “Significant resources remain on scene to ensure further containment.”

The fire broke out around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday amid 90-plus degree temperatures in grass and oak woodlands that are dotted with rural homesteads, officials said. Fire officials say the cause is under investigation.

“We have structures threatened and evacuations are in place,” Cal Fire spokesperson Diana Swart said in an announcement soon after the fire’s ignition. “There are lots of people living in those nooks and crannies.”

The evacuation on the winding hill roads was orderly, Sgt. Anthony Prencipe of the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department said Tuesday afternoon. “It sounds like people are following directions. There are no reported issues.”

Some roads in the Cool area were, however, jammed with cars mid-afternoon.

Fire officials reported that 285 firefighters were on scene and had made good progress in the first two hours as the fire behavior “started to moderate.”

Two local Garden Valley firefighters suffered minor injuries when they and their truck were overrun by fire, Pastor Drew Buell of Cool Community Church said. Cal Fire officials said both were transported to hospitals for treatment.

About 30 people were staying at the church early Tuesday evening, which was serving as the evacuation center.

Among those was Carrie Carlson, who had been at work away from home when the fire hit. Her 16-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, however, were at home in the hills. Carlson called her daughter, who said “it was raining ash in the backyard.”

When they were alerted by sheriff’s deputies that they had to evacuate, the two children went to a neighbor’s house with their dog Denali, cat Samson and their bearded dragon lizard Norbert. The neighbor ferried them to safety, Carlson said.

Two helicopters line up to refill with water from a local pond Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019, as they fight the Country Fire in El Dorado County. Jason Pierce

“The biggest relief to me, not even joking, was this morning when I left, because I knew they were going to be home most of the day by themselves. I said, ‘What is our fire evacuation plan? And they both told me,’” Carlson said with a smile. “And when I called to check in on them, they were both really calm and they just did exactly what they were told to do.”

Pat Rickard, a resident of the Auburn Lake Trails neighborhood, six miles from Cool, said her residential area has been evacuated. There are about 1,200 people in total living in a series of rural subdivisions in that area, she said. It’s unclear how many were required to leave.

Rickard was shopping in Roseville when the evacuations were announced. She tried to get back to her house to pick up belongings, but officials refused to allow her in.

“A friend said the fire was not too far from our house,” Rickard said. “We are grateful. We are safe. We feel like they (fire fighters) are hitting the fire with everything they have.”

Jordan Gilbert grabbed his dog Taz and a file folder box of personal documents and headed to the church to wait. This is the first time he was evacuated, he said, although fires have hit the area in the past. He saw the smoke from his backyard. It was a long way off, but with helicopters circling overhead, he didn’t wait for the sheriff’s to tell him to leave.

Highway 193 and other local roads remained closed Tuesday evening. Mandatory evacuations also remained in place for parts of Sweetwater Trail, Cascade Trail, Bald Eagle Ct., Secret Ravine Trail, Stoney Hill Court, Cattail Court, Greenhorn Trail, Courageous Court, Pilgrim Court and Trillium Lane.

A voluntary evacuation was in place for Wild Lilac area.

“If you do not need to be in this area, please stay away to allow fire and emergency personnel to get to the fire,” the sheriff’s department said in a Facebook post.

Structures on the stretch between Penobscot Creek east of Cool and the Buffalo Hill in Georgetown lost power around 2 p.m. Tuesday, PG&E’s outage map shows. More than 800 customers were affected.

Overall, fire officials say, it has been a quiet summer for wildfires, although California’s extended fire season has lasted recently until late in the year during autumns and early winters when little rain fell.

Two weeks ago, the Mountain Fire east of Redding forced evacuation of 4,000 residents. Firefighters were able to get that blaze largely under control in one day.

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Caroline Ghisolfi, from Stanford University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and health care. She grew up in Milan, Italy.
Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.