Firefighters gained the upper hand Monday on a nearly 4,000-acre wildfire in El Dorado and Amador counties, allowing a procession of displaced homeowners to return as most evacuation orders were lifted on the fire’s fourth day.
People returning to the communities of Fair Play, Mount Aukum and Somerset in southern El Dorado County hauled horse trailers back on country roads. They passed signs reading, “Thank you, firefighters, for valiant efforts saving homes,” and “We love our firefighters.”
In the blaze that destroyed 51 structures, including 13 residences, most people could celebrate over returning to the same homes and lives they left behind.
Rick Ogden, 59, was one of those who could not. He was uncertain Monday what path to take after enduring the third devastating fire of his life.
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The former Pepsi Co. salesman lost a former house to a wildfire in San Diego County in 2003. Several years later, he was recovering from heart surgery at a friend’s house in Camino when it burned down due to an electrical fire.
This time, Ogden and his girlfriend, Colleen Okey, were living on “our golden years location” off of Sand Ridge Road, overlooking the middle fork of the Cosumnes River.
“The solitude was phenomenal,” Odgen said. “But it could change with a blink of an eye.”
On Saturday, a shift in the winds sent fire surging up to his house so quickly that Odgen had just enough time to cut open pens for the chicken and turkeys he was raising on 40 acres, allowing them to flee. His house was already aflame as Ogden and Okey drove off with their three dogs, Hannah, Jackson and Rudy.
On Monday, after Ogden and Okey stopped by the Red Cross emergency shelter at Ponderosa High School in Shingle Springs, fire officials said most of the displaced residents could return. Meanwhile, Ogden was waiting to talk to his insurance agent – and his girlfriend – about the future.
“I want to rebuild, but I’m going to have to make sure that it’s good with her,” Ogden said.
He got his answer minutes later.
“I’m saying ‘no,’ ” Okey said. “Because every fire season, you’re wondering if you’re going to be there or not. I want to move some place that’s green – but away from fire risk.”
On Monday, fire officials said the risk had diminished considerably from the Sand fire. The blaze, declared 75 percent contained as of Monday evening, wasn’t spreading. But fire crews, reaching nearly 2,000 personnel, were still attacking hot spots. And the blaze may not be completely extinguished until Aug. 1, officials said.
“The fire is not getting any bigger,” said Ventura County Fire Capt. Ron Oatman, serving as a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “But it’s still not fully contained. Even though we don’t have active flames, we have to secure the entire perimeter.”
Authorities have blamed the fire, still under investigation, on a vehicle driving into brush near Sand Ridge Road and Highway 49. The brush was believed to have caught fire, engulfing the vehicle in flames as the blaze spread. No injury was reported.
“The vehicle was driving in an area where it shouldn’t have been,” said Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff. “Driving into tall dry grass with a vehicle whose exhaust system is super hot is going to light something on fire.”
Patrick Sutter, 48, was told Monday that he and his family could return to their house in Mount Aukum. His family had placed their horses and goat in a trailer and fled the fire Saturday as burning debris rained down on them.
The first night at the Red Cross shelter, Sutter, a former Marine used to such accommodations, slept on a cot in fits and starts. “I was having flashbacks of waiting for my sergeant coming through the door and throwing down trash cans and yelling,” he said.
After a restful sleep the second night, he awoke to the news he wanted to hear.
“I get to go home. I feel good,” Sutter said.
Red Cross spokeswoman Melissa Webber said 13 stranded residents stayed at the shelter Sunday night and dozens more came for morning breakfast offerings of biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs, pancakes, yogurt, bagels and juice. “It seems that people’s spirits are lifting in hopes that they can return soon,” Webber said.
Doc Bassett was still in limbo. A Cal Fire official informed the gathering that people living east of Mount Aukum Road could return to their homes. Bassett lives just to the west.
He felt let down when a fire official, marking areas on a map where people could go back, then “pointed exactly where our house was – and said, ‘no.’
So he sat in the hot sun and waited with his “other half” – a tiny dog named Sofie. Bassett said he considered sneaking in on some back roads to his house but abandoned the idea.
“We got our hopes up,” he said. “But we decided to be good, law-abiding citizens.”
Meanwhile, Ogden and Okey had taken advantage of an offer from a neighbor with a house near the Red Cross shelter. The neighbor agreed to host Ogden and Okey in a fifth-wheel trailer while the couple ponders where they’ll live next.
Though their house was destroyed, they did get some good news Monday: The turkeys and chickens that Ogden had freed from their pens had largely flown or waddled to safety. A neighbor was providing them feed and water.