Estimate of Lowell fire size lowered, but blaze continues to threaten homes north of I-80

By Ben Egel and Sam Stanton

The Lowell fire along the Bear Creek canyon Saturday, July 25, 2015.
The Lowell fire along the Bear Creek canyon Saturday, July 25, 2015.

UPDATE - 9:25 a.m. Sunday

Fire season in Northern California hit full bore Saturday, as yet another wildfire erupted near Colfax about 2:30 p.m. and quickly consumed 1,500 acres of forest north of Interstate 80 from Gold Run to Alta.

The estimated acreage of the Lowell fire was revised down from 4,000 acres Sunday morning, based on how Cal Fire figures the area fires cover. Saturday’s estimate came for direct observation, but Sunday’s was more accurately figured by using infrared measurements, Cal Fire said.

The fire, which began west of Alta and forced evacuations in the Nevada County foothill communities of Red Dog, Chalk Hill and You Bet, continued to threaten structures Sunday morning, and mandatory evacuations remain in place.

Cal Fire said the blaze generated spot fires a half mile in front of itself and that access to the burning area was extremely difficult because of the rugged terrain. Aircraft, including a U.S. Forest Service C-130, were bombing the flames with retardant and water drops, and a huge, mushroom-shaped cloud of white smoke had formed over the main fire area.

The fire burned north into Nevada County on Saturday evening and forced the evacuation of the northeastern part of Cascade Shores northeast of Nevada City. The Red Cross set up a shelter at Nevada Union High School for 300 evacuees.

Among the first to show up Saturday night were Leo and Judy Richert, both 63, who said they live in a community of 17 homes and were forced to flee. The couple said they did not plan to stay the night there but were grateful to have gotten out with their dogs.

“We’ve never been evacuated before,” said Leo Richert, who has lived in the area for 15 years. “I’ve never had a fire this close to my house before.”

Judy, his wife, said the couple were mostly concerned about their pets, and they had their German shepherd and two schnauzers with them in the Toyota trucks they used to leave their home. “Because of the area, we have always anticipated this,” Judy Richert said. “We feel as long as we get our animals out, that’s all were concerned about.”

Her husband said the area has not had a major fire since 1946 and that firefighters “know we’re out there and they keep real close track of us.”

“So, I hope that God smiles on us and we don’t ever get burned out.”

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said officials are looking for information on a vehicle seen leaving the area near where the fire began. It was described as a 4x4 white Jeep Wrangler with a black roll bar and without a top or front doors. The vehicle was seen near Gold Run and Dutch Flat about 2:30 p.m. Anyone with information can call the Placer or Nevada county sheriff’s departments.

The Lowell fire was the third major fire to hit the region in the past week. The Wragg fire started Wednesday afternoon off Highway 128 and spread through portions of Napa and Solano counties. By late Saturday, that blaze had consumed 6,900 acres and was 55 percent contained.

While firefighters were battling the Wragg fire, the Kyburz fire broke out Thursday afternoon along Highway 50 west of its namesake town, forcing the closure of the highway and evacuations in the area. By late Saturday, that blaze had been limited to 200 acres and was 75 percent contained.

Firefighters made enough progress on that blaze to allow Caltrans to announce the highway was expected to completely reopen by 9:30 p.m. Saturday. Mandatory evacuations there were lifted.

The eruption of the Lowell fire forced the diversion of firefighters to the new blaze, including units from the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District. “We have no containment,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, spokeswoman for Cal Fire.

The fire was burning to the northeast near the intersection of Lowell Hill Road and Chicago Park Powerhouse Road in Alta. Both of those roads were closed to traffic, Tolmachoff said.

The fire is 2 miles from a subdivision. “It’s moving at a pretty good pace,” Tolmachoff said.

The fires come as the state grapples with its fourth year of drought, which has made Northern California forests tinder dry and left fire officials juggling efforts against blazes the length of the state.

Since Jan. 1, Cal Fire has reported 3,625 fires that consumed nearly 19,000 acres, figures that don’t include last week’s blazes. For the same period last year, there were 2,601 fires that burned more than 35,000 acres.

Firefighters have been aided in recent weeks by temperate weather and occasional rainfall that has helped keep blazes from becoming major wildfires. But a heat wave expected in the north state in coming days may complicate their efforts.

The Bee’s Edward Ortiz and Stela Khury contributed to this report.

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