It was a day of wait-and-see Thursday for the hundreds of residents whose homes remain threatened by the Applegate fire as firefighters worked to get the upper hand on the blaze that destroyed six structures and threatened 1,000 other Placer County residences.
The personnel working the blaze swelled to 1,419 people as ground crews, aided by helicopters and heavy air tankers, sought to get control of it before it reached the American River Canyon. Firefighters worked in timber and brush on steep mountainside terrain. The fire – which began as a series of fires along Interstate 80 on Wednesday afternoon – stood at 420 acres and was 25 percent contained Thursday night.
Investigators continued to search for the cause of the fire, despite rumors of an arsonist tossing flaming wads of paper, cigarettes, lit flares or flaming tires from a vehicle.
Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for Cal Fire, said the fact that five to seven individual fires started nearly simultaneously point to a human cause, but that the blaze could have been caused by a spark from a chain dragging or from a catalytic converter. He said the investigation could take weeks.
“We’re going to rule out every single possibility,” Berlant said.
Both lanes of eastbound I-80 from Applegate to Weimar Cross Road were open in the area of the fire Thursday night.
Evacuations remain in effect for Ponderosa Way to the boundary of Auburn State Recreation Area, Bridge Trail Way, Brushy Ridge, Hidden Ridge, Cross Road and East Ridge.
When the evacuation order came Wednesday, Applegate resident Russ Niesz discovered he and his wife had more animals than means to transport them.
So while his wife drove the horse and three donkeys to safety, he walked the five miles to safety with his two mules. The two cats and two dogs also rode with his wife, he said.
“I wasn’t worried about the house. I was just worried about the animals,” he said.
Jullie Hill, also of Applegate, said neighbors pulled together to help each other pack up. Some helped collect scared animals; others helped people pack a few belongings.
“It was 45 minutes of just non-stop,” Hill said.
Despite the order, Gabe Terrell said he spent Wednesday night at his mother’s home in a senior community in Applegate as the fire bore down. He and friend Shineah Peters were walking out of the community when they asked law enforcement whether they could come back if they left. The answer was no, and the men decided to stay.
“It was definitely scary when I saw the smoke coming through the trees,” Peters said.
Just before noon on Thursday, Terrell said, he got a call he had been hoping to get from a friend he’d lost track of during the evacuation.
Thursday afternoon, Niesz went with Hill’s daughter to check on a neighbor’s home, which they suspected had been lost to the fire. Niesz was surprised to see the home still there. Firefighters were parked at the property. Less than 150 yards from the home and just a few feet from the empty livestock pen, crews mopped up a spot fire that had jumped ahead of the main fire.
Other homes were not as lucky. Two still smoldering Thursday served as the backdrop for television reporters detailing the fire.
Call The Bee’s Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @NewsFletch.