King fire grows to 8,600 acres; containment falls to 5 percent

The weekend fire east of Pollock Pines at first didn’t seem to be much more than a curiosity. Many residents thought fire crews would quickly handle it.

Out on Moon Lane, Steve Mancuso hopped on his quad runner to rumble into the woods – just to take a look at the blaze before it was put out. He saw low smoke streaming up the terrain in an area called King of the Mountains.

“We were kind of worried, but not terribly,” he said.

But the fire that burned just 20 acres Saturday and reached 100 acres by early Sunday morning exploded into a ravenous inferno. On Monday, the King fire would live up to its name and more than double in size from 4,000 to 8,600 acres. Containment fell to 5 percent from 10 percent earlier in the day.

As of Monday evening, the blaze had burned no structures but threatened 500 houses and prompted authorities to order residents of more than 130 homes to evacuate.

On Monday, the flames blew at a Northern California inmate crew trying to cut a fire line with hand tools. The inmates quickly pulled portable fire shelters over their bodies. The fire roared over them, destroying a bulldozer that was working nearby. The inmates weren’t injured but had to hike out of danger and be rescued by helicopter.

Despite air crews dumping water and fire retardant on the flames, the fire Monday was spreading through deep, treacherous ravines in the upper American River Canyon and burning into the Eldorado National Forest.

Officials of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said the fire may take a week or more to contain.

“The wind has been pushing it,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, a Cal Fire spokewoman. “It burned into a canyon area and that terrain is very difficult to fight. Once the fire established itself, it was off to the races.”

The King fire is one of a number currently burning in Northern California, including the Boles fire, near the town of Weed, that had destroyed about 100 structures and burned 300 acres by Monday evening, according to Cal Fire.

The drought had prompted predictions of a worse than normal fire season, but so far that has not proved to be the case. Through Sept. 6, about 86,000 acres had burned in Cal Fire’s jurisdiction, state figures show. That was well below the 103,000 acres burned over the same period a year ago and slightly above the five-year average (over the same period) of 80,000 acres.

On Monday morning, a vast convoy of heavy equipment, including flatbed trucks carrying bulldozers, and water tenders were streaming up Highway 50 to fortify crews battling the Sierra Nevada blaze. They passed under signs, erected over the highway in Camino, exclaiming: “Good Luck, Firefighters.”

Westbound Highway 50 was closed to motorists, at least temporarily Monday, from Sly Park Road to Forest Road due to the fire, according to Caltrans.

Tolmachoff said about 1,200 firefighters were working on the blaze Monday and that reinforcements were expected from the United States Forest Service, which was expected to take over as lead agency as the flames burned deeper into federal lands.

Mancuso, who stopped by the makeshift Red Cross emergency shelter Monday at Sierra Ridge Middle School in Pollock Pines, was surprised that a fire that looked so innocuous had grown with such a fury.

He and his wife, Sheila, had driven off for church services in Placerville on Sunday morning, still without worries.

When they returned later, driving back up the mountain on Highway 50, Mancuso said, “We saw a big plume coming up.”

Turning into their neighborhood, they were stopped by El Dorado County sheriff’s deputies at Forbay Road and told that they had mere minutes “to get to our house, get our stuff and get out fast,” Mancuso said.

As Steve Mancuso retrieved clothes and his personal computer from the house, Sheila Mancuso grabbed a photograph of her mother, who died when she was a child. “It’s the only picture of her I have,” she said.

Though threat warnings remained Monday, fire officials said the fire seemed to be burning in an easterly direction, away from inhabited areas.

Residents such as Dennis Noriel, 68, said they were glad to be out – but also surprised they hadn’t sensed the danger early on.

As the fire burned Saturday, Noriel, a retired Petaluma firefighter, relaxed at his vacation home on El Camino Drive. His beloved Labrador mix, Douglas, was at his side as Noriel drank cold beer outside while monitoring a scanner for fire emergency communications.

By the next morning, he saw new streams of smoke and “more helicopter action” from crews fighting the blaze. Later, he said, “The sheriff came up the driveway and said, ‘This is a mandatory evacuation. I’m not going to tell you again.’ ”

Still, Noriel took his time. He went around his house, taking photos for the insurance company, just in case. He retrieved some personal papers. Then he caught a glimpse of the changing fire picture outside.

“I saw this ominous black cloud,” Noriel said. “And I told Douglas, ‘We’ve got to get out now!’ ”

They showed up at the Red Cross center in the Sierra Ridge School. There, instead of opting for an emergency cot, Noriel slept in his car with his dog.

Red Cross spokeswoman Melissa Webber said 100 displaced residents got free meals at the shelter on Sunday, and seven stayed for the night. Authorities announced a new evacuation center was being set up Monday evening at the Seventh Day Adventist Church at 3520 Carson Road in Camino.

Earlier Monday, crowds were gathering in the parking lot of the Safeway store, near Sly Park Road in Pollock Pines, for visual updates of the fire. At times the sky seemed to clear. At other times, there were new reddish gray plumes as more trees in the distant forest ignited.

Tolmachoff said crews have been setting controlled burns since Sunday to try to establish a perimeter in hopes of reducing the fire’s spread. About three dozen hand crews were also battling the fire, in addition to bulldozers and other heavy equipment.

Still, Tolmachoff said the fire had “grown significantly” by late Monday afternoon as it seemed to wane only to flare up again.

“It will burn into a canyon and then make a big run up a hill,” Tolmachoff said. “Then it dies down and builds its energy before popping up again.”

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