Apple Hill ranches feel effects of King fire

Business was slow at Apple Hill’s famed orchards Saturday, as smoke from the King fire in El Dorado County discouraged people from visiting, owners said.

Apple farmers, bakers and craft vendors said foot traffic had dropped by at least 50 percent, marking a gloomy start to the high season that began Labor Day and ends in December. Thousands of tourists traditionally make the trip from across Northern California to the area for a chance to pick their own apples or indulge in apple pie.

“Let’s put it this way: It’s not good,” said Paul Dozier, owner of Pine-O-Mine ranch in Placerville, when asked about the fire’s impact on sales.

Dozier said conditions on Friday were “like walking through the fog.”

On Saturday, however, only a slight tinge of smoke was in the air, but not far off, a heavy haze hovered over the rolling hills. Dozier’s 13-acre property was practically deserted, save for the occasional customer.

The King fire, which broke out Sept. 13, has charred 81,944 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It was 10 percent contained Saturday.

Thunderstorms, which were developing late Saturday in the Sierra Nevada, could aid firefighters battling the fire, but fire planners are keeping close watch on the suddenly shifting winds that accompany such weather.

Thunderstorms were developing along the crest from Sierra-Tahoe to Kirkwood, said Craig Shoemaker, a National Weather Service forecaster, Saturday night. What that means, he said, depends on whether the systems hold up. About a quarter-inch of rain cold fall bringing isolated gusts of 30 to 40 mph.

The wind “is a main issue,” however, not just for its strength but its direction, Shoemaker said. Afternoon winds in the Sierra are normally westerly but could shift east with the thunderstorm activity and affect where the fire burns.

“A sudden shift from westerly to easterly is possibly the biggest concern,” Shoemaker said.

“The rain would be nice, but thunderstorms create their own problems for us. The winds can be very erratic,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The erratic winds can quickly change a fire's direction making a dangerous environment even more so for firefighters.

In the Apple Hill area, media reports and the closure of Highway 50 in recent days had an immediate impact on foot traffic, business owners said.

“When people hear (Highway) 50 is closed, they don’t know how to get here,” said Kevin Ames, whose mother owns Abel’s Apple Acres.

Traffic heading east on the interstate Saturday morning was light. Though glimmers of sunlight made their way over parts of Apple Hill, a dark shadow loomed in the background and the rumbling of fire trucks served as reminders of the not-so-distant blaze.

Around 11 a.m., only a few dozen people browsed the vendors at High Hills Ranch. On a typical September weekend, some vendors said, they would expect to find people standing elbow-to-elbow.

Robert Foster, a photography and art dealer, said the fire was creating “the perception that we’re completely engulfed in smoke and embers.”

“Everyone’s worried about the fire continuing,” he added.

On Friday, regional air-quality officials said the King fire had pushed air pollution into the rarely seen “hazardous” category in many areas of the Sierra Nevada west of Lake Tahoe.

Officials cautioned residents and visitors against prolonged outdoor activity in areas most affected by the smoke, including the foothill and mountain areas of Placer and El Dorado counties, along with parts of Nevada and Amador counties. Heavy and prolonged exposure to particulate pollution, in addition to causing breathing problems, can contribute to heart disease and heart attacks.

Still, some visitors decided to take advantage of the smaller crowd.

Jeff Turner of Los Banos said news of the fire did not deter him from making the annual trek to Apple Hill, a 17-year tradition for the family.

“It’s a good time to come,” said Turner, carrying a bag of Enterprise apples. “There’s less people.”

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