Update: Fire crews establishing control lines to protect homes in Yolo county

Fire crews established defense zones to protect homes in western Yolo County today after the blaze ballooned to 7,000 acres, forcing the evacuation of homes in the Golden Bear Estates subdivision.

The blaze, dubbed the Monticello Fire, burned 1,500 acres Friday and has proceeded to devour drought-stricken ground since. As the blaze burned up hillsides, through dry brush and oak wood lands, mandatory evacuations remained in effect for Golden Bear Estates though the fire was burning away from the neighborhood by midday Sunday. The fire was 30 percent contained.

“We’re building strong control lines,” said Tom Piranio, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “Based on the weather right now, a southwesterly wind is burnng the fire in the other direction.”

Due remote, inaccessible terrain, Piranio said, firefighters were going to have to be flown in to battle the blaze.

Highway 128 between Winters and Lake Berryessa remained closed to non-local traffic. However, fire officials allowed weekend visitors to return to Canyon Creek Resort near the lake to pick up their recreational vehicles.

Firefighters over the weekend kept the blaze from entering the large-lot neighborhood, aided by a change in wind direction Sunday that pushed the fire away from the homes.

Elsewhere, firefighters mostly contained a separate blaze, the Butts fire, that started Tuesday at the opposite end of Lake Berryessa and burned 4,300 acres.

The Monticello fire is the latest in a rash of fires over the holiday weekend that sent a thick haze over Sacramento, hampering the region’s air quality. A fire on Friday consumed residences at a Placer County mobile home park, and a blaze behind Cal Expo forced the evacuation of a local water park and the postponement of a scheduled Sacramento Republic FC soccer match until Monday. The cause of the 40-acre fire near Cal Expo has not been determined, said Roberto Padilla, Sacramento Fire Department spokesman.

Two unrelated Placer County grass fires – snuffed out before they got out of control – were suspected to have resulted from embers from Roseville’s July Fourth fireworks show at the Placer County fairgrounds, authorities said. The fires were reported at 9:48 p.m. Friday.

The Monticello fire started just after 9:30 p.m. Friday off Highway 128 at the Monticello dam on the southeast shore of Lake Berryessa, according to Cal Fire. The flames are 5 miles west of Winters. The 50 homes remain evacuated, and road closures were in effect Saturday. The blaze is mainly in Yolo County, but also stretches into Napa and Solano counties.

Firefighters face an uphill battle, as dry brush, winds and high temperatures feed the flames. But officials were moving resources from the Butts fire to the Monticello blaze.

“Our concern is that the wind will shift and those homes will be threatened again,” Cal Fire spokeman Daniel Berlant said of the Monticello fire.

The explosively dry conditions are allowing fires to outpace containment efforts. Over the course of the day Saturday, fire officials downgraded their containment assessment from 25 percent to 15 percent as the fire rapidly consumed the dry brush. By Saturday evening, the fire was reported 30 percent contained, but the number of acres engulfed had tripled.

“The fire has increased in size faster than we’ve been able to build a containment line,” Berlant said. “This may be a sign of what may come, given the drought.”

Berlant said the dead grass and trees leave “a lot of potential for this fire to grow.”

The cause of that fire was unknown Saturday evening.

Like many in the Sacramento region, Esparto resident Hal Greene woke up Saturday to smoke in the air.

“We had pretty thick smoke hanging down here,” said Greene, who noted that white flakes of ash lightly dusted his gray pickup.

Today’s air quality index is forecast to be 116, meaning it is unhealthy for sensitive groups.

Residents of the Sabre City Mobile Home Park in Placer County, just north of the Sacramento County line, spent much of Saturday sorting through the remains of their charred homes after a suspected arson fire destroyed five buildings at the height of Fourth of July celebrations. Melanie Leanne Orantes was arrested on suspicion of arson by a Cal Fire peace officer Friday night and was in Placer County jail in lieu of $150,000 bail. It is unclear whether Orantes lived in the mobile home park. The fire was contained just before 11 p.m. Friday.

“Most of it’s gone,” Ozzie Powell, 52, who has lived at the same three-bedroom mobile home for 20 years, said of his family’s belongings. His family and their friends loaded up DVDs, clothes and other items onto pickup trucks. “We’re just trying to take whatever we can salvage.”

His wife, Beth Powell, 47, found some of her jewelry, including diamond rings and necklaces, largely intact. The stash had been hidden inside a plastic bag at the bottom of a large dresser that was incinerated by the flames.

“Look at it … the box is charred, but the inside is fine,” Beth Powell said, while sitting on her front lawn.

The Powells have insurance. Others, like Billy Hodge, does not.

Hodge, 57, who gets by on a disability stipend, said he barely had time to move his 1996 Ford Explorer away from the flames. He spoke Saturday sitting in his SUV parked across the street.

“We need help here,” Hodge said. “We don’t have money to put up another trailer.”

All that remained of his home, which he shares with two friends, was an old refrigerator, the mobile home’s metal frame and a half-melted barbecue grill. Saturday afternoon, the fire was still smoldering.