Heavy smoke grounds air attack on Butte fire

A 101-square-mile wall of flames and smoke laid siege to the drought-stricken Gold Country area for a fourth straight day Saturday as an army of firefighters tried to corral the state’s latest large wildfire.

At the same time, a separate fire that broke out in Lake County on Saturday afternoon – the Valley fire – had exploded in size to 10,000 acres by 7 p.m., with evacuations of thousands of homes along Highway 29 from Clear Lake to the edge of Calistoga in Napa County.

“With the amount of immediate life threat, this is the priority,” said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Berlant said some homes had been destroyed by the blaze, but he did not know how many. He said hundreds of firefighters were being rushed to the area late Saturday as the fire rapidly spread, fueled by winds reaching 30 miles per hour. Video from news helicopters showed massive walls of flames consuming buildings as the fire quickly expanded through dense forests and steep terrain.

On the other side of the Central Valley, the Butte fire burning in Amador and Calaveras counties had consumed about 65,000 acres by Saturday evening, destroyed 86 homes and 51 other structures and was threatening another 6,400, Cal Fire said. But firefighters reported progress in battling the blaze, saying it was 15 percent contained despite a thick layer of smoke that kept air tankers and helicopters from flying Saturday.

“The smoke is so dense and so thick the trees across the street are just smears,” said Pam Null, a resident of Pine Grove in Amador County who was gathered with neighbors at a local minimart Saturday, waiting to see where the fire would head next.

Null and others in the area were forced to evacuate Thursday night after the blaze erupted, fleeing with whatever they could toss into their vehicles.

“We loaded up the cars and skedaddled down to my dad’s house in Jackson 10 miles down the road,” said Null, a 33-year resident of the area who said she had never before faced such fire danger. “My family loaded up work clothes so we could go to work.

“We loaded up our pets and pink slips, birth certificates, photos and nothing else. It felt like it was right at my front door.”

That evacuation was part of the initial frantic effort to get residents out of harm’s way, one that at one point included an order to evacuate San Andreas and Angels Camp. That order was rescinded Friday, and by Saturday firefighters appeared to be holding the line against the blaze despite the layer of smoke that stretched into Sacramento’s skies and grounded Cal Fire’s air force of eight tankers and 17 helicopters.

“There hasn’t been anyone flying today, the smoke has socked us in,” said Bud Englund, a Cal Fire public information officer in Plymouth. “The whole area is pretty unflyable right now. It’s not safe for aircraft.”

Josh White, Cal Fire unit chief for Calaveras County, noted that “air resources are an incredible factor in any firefight” but that smoke had limited the effectiveness of those units and left the major work to ground crews.

“We always have to follow up air resources with ground resources,” White said. “Our ground resources are still out there being effective.”

As firefighters focused their efforts on the Butte fire, the Valley fire erupted Saturday afternoon in Lake County. It burned 50 acres initially, then exploded quickly into a 400-acre fire that forced mandatory evacuations in the community of Cobb, at Harbin Hot Springs and along Big Canyon Road. Four Cal Fire firefighters suffered burns in that incident and were evacuated to UC Davis Medical Center for treatment. They suffered second-degree burns and were all in stable condition Saturday evening, Berlant said.

Firefighters also were continuing efforts Saturday against the Rough fire east of Fresno, which at 128,796 acres is the largest burning in the state.

Sacramento fire units are helping battle that blaze. One Sacramento firefighter was part of a team that spent Saturday in Kings Canyon National Park working to protect the General Grant Tree, a 3,000-year-old sequoia that at 267 feet is the second-largest in the world, from the blaze.

Overall, Cal Fire said it has battled more than 5,000 fires so far this year, up from about 3,500 for the same time last year, and that the state’s prolonged drought has left California in severe danger from wildfires.

In the Butte fire, the heavy layer of smoke began to clear by midafternoon, and area residents said the fire had shut down commerce throughout the area.

“It’s like the whole town folded up,” said Nola Rasberry, 86, who was staffing the Angels Camp visitors center on Main Street, where she said a stream of disappointed tourists had been coming in. “Everybody’s closed.”

Hundreds of residents gathered at town hall meetings Saturday afternoon in high schools in San Andreas and Angels Camp to get updates on how the firefight was unfolding.

At Calaveras High School in San Andreas, officials urged residents who were evacuated to be patient before rushing to return home.

“There are a number of hazards you don’t think about,” Calaveras County Supervisor Cliff Edson cautioned. “The professionals are here.”

Some residents sat with their vehicles packed, waiting for word on whether they could go back home or should flee the fire zone again.

At Zimmerman’s Hilltop Market outside of San Andreas, owner Tim Zimmerman said he and his family left briefly but returned to open the market Saturday while they waited for word on whether they could return home.

“Pretty much everyone is just waiting,” Zimmerman said. “We don’t have TV. We go up the hill and see what is going on.”

Cal Fire marshaled a huge army against the blaze, including about 3,300 firefighters and 383 fire engines, and law enforcement agencies from throughout the region provided officers and deputies to help provide support and protect against looting. Eleven Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies were sent to the fire, along with two officers from Sacramento police, four from Folsom police, two from Citrus Heights, six deputies from Yolo County and seven from El Dorado County, according to the state Office of Emergency Services.

Despite the show of force, the California Highway Patrol reported one home in San Andreas had been broken into and that one suspect was in custody.

No cause for the Butte fire has been established yet. Fire officials said they still were worried about some communities on the eastern edge of the blaze, including Glencoe and Mountain Ranch in Calaveras County, because of fears that winds would pick up in those areas.

“It’s going to continue burning until we are able to get those contingency lines on that eastern flank,” Cal Fire’s White said. “That is my biggest concern, that eastern flank. It’s ready territory.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee