The 90-square-mile County Fire continued to burn Monday into areas of Yolo, Lake and Napa counties as fire officials said the scope and ferocity of the fires seen this early in the year is an ominous sign for what may be coming.
“Just when I thought I'd seen the largest or most damaging fire of my career, it repeats itself the following year," Cal Fire spokesman Chris Anthony said Monday morning. "Normally, I'd be shocked to see this kind of growth this time of year, but I think the paradigm has shifted as it relates to what was considered normal.
"It's not normal anymore."
Cal Fire said 269 fires broke out in the last week, including nine large fires over the weekend that included the County Fire, the biggest currently burning in the state.
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The County Fire, reported at 60,000 acres and 5 percent containment as of 7 p.m. Monday, was burning through extremely dry grass, oak stands and brushlands about 55 miles northwest of Sacramento between Highway 16 and Lake Berryessa.
The blaze, which began Saturday afternoon and at times was scorching an average of 1,000 acres an hour, sent huge plumes of smoke and ash into the air that turned Bay Area skies orange and left a coating of ash on cars throughout Sacramento.
Cal Fire rushed more than 1,200 firefighters and a dozen helicopters in to battle the blaze, and said the effort was aided by the fact that so many resources were available nearby from the Pawnee Fire, which burned nearly 15,000 aces in Lake County last week before teams were able to get the upper hand and shift resources to the County Fire.
“There was a lot of resources we kept staging, knowing a couple of things could happen," Anthony said. "With Pawnee, it was likely that we'd get an ember that goes across the line and there was a 90 to 100 percent chance that it would ignite.
"The explosive growth on this fire in the last 48 hours really tells you that the fuels are receptive to ignition.”
Cal Fire said "critically low" humidity and shifting winds helped fuel the flames, and by Monday the fire was estimated to be threatening more than 100 structures and had forced as many as 300 residents to evacuate. There were no immediate reports of injuries or homes lost, and for some people the fire was more of a nuisance than anything else.
Setsuko Riggins of Fairfield was standing in the parking structure of the Cache Creek Casino Resort, recalling on Monday that many people had been snapping photos of the fire over the weekend. Riggins said she had been at the casino since Saturday, and that the biggest impact had been that smoke kept many gamblers inside the casino.
Patricia Rose of San Jose pulled into the casino valet area Monday and wondered if the grayish skies were from smoke or simply overcast skies, but she added that she wasn't concerned.
"I don't care, as long as there's machines for me," Rose said.
Cal Fire officials were not as nonchalant, warning that even with cooler temperatures forecast for this week the danger remains high, especially with the July 4 holiday on Wednesday expected to bring out countless people with lighters and matches.
Four years ago on the July 4 holiday, illegal fireworks sparked the Monticello Fire on the southeast shore of Lake Berryessa - not far from where the County Fire is burning - and scorched 6,488 acres over the course of a week.
"The whole idea right now is the winds are erratic and they're changing direction on a regular basis," Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said. "We're dealing with low humidity and weather patterns that are extremely receptive to fire.
"It's just a recipe for what we're seeing: when a fire grows 20,000 acres in less than 24 hours it kind of opens your eyes very quickly."