Firefighters battled flames in mountainous terrain Thursday above opposite sides of the Sacramento Valley, signaling the start of what could be a particularly combustible fire season in drought-stricken California.
One of the region’s largest fires of the early season grew to 6,900 acres across steep slopes and down rugged canyons near Lake Berryessa. Firefighters so far have limited damage to one home, an outbuilding and a tent trailer, but the blaze served as a reminder of the dangerous conditions as haze covered the evening sky Wednesday across the Sacramento region.
On Thursday, a growing Kyburz fire shut down Highway 50 in the Eldorado National Forest as flames covered both sides of the road just north of the American River. As of early evening, the blaze had grown to 100 acres and forced evacuations from White Hall to Sand Flat Campground.
The fires grew rapidly over the last two days, consuming miles of dry brush and vexing firefighters by creeping into challenging terrain. The Wragg fire, named after a canyon in the Berryessa fire zone, gave residents little warning.
Jason Haefner said he moved quickly to save the show horses and cattle on his 27-acre Petrillo Ranch on Pleasant View Road. He said he rallied friends in order to gather seven trailers to evacuate 40 show horses as fire threatened his property line.
“Firefighters were working fires towards the south of us, but one fire snuck in and came at us from the north,” Haefner said. “We had the fire rolling in close enough that we knew we needed to get out.”
Bone-dry California has seen a dramatic increase in the number of fires this year, with 3,625 occurring through July 18, compared to 2,601 over the same span last year, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
But those fires, as a whole, have been significantly smaller at 18,874 acres, barely more than half of the 35,567 acres that burned through July 18 last year. The total is also much smaller than the five-year average of 32,935 acres that burned over the same interval.
Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said that paradox during a historic drought is the result of two factors – beefing up staff and equipment, as well as help from Mother Nature in the form of cooler temperatures and higher humidity.
Investigators are still examining what sparked the Kyburz and Wragg fires, but each had initial reports of car fires that may have played a role.
Around Berryessa, huge swaths of golden-hued canyons and ridges are now gray, charred expanses, with smoke still rising from cleared areas. The fire has forced the evacuation of many residents and campers who live west of Winters off Highway 128, and the road is closed from the Highway 121 junction in Napa County to Pleasants Valley Road west of Winters in Yolo County.
“A fire like this will probably take weeks to contain,” said Cal Fire spokeswoman Amy Head.
Firefighters made headway on the blaze in the early morning Thursday when the weather was cool and humid, she said. As of 6 p.m. Thursday, firefighters had the Wragg fire 15 percent contained. A total of 1,300 personnel, 161 fire engines and four air tankers were working the blaze.
Despite their progress, firefighters remain concerned by the potential for high winds.
About 200 structures are threatened in the Quail Ridge area, which is under a mandatory evacuation order, officials said. An evacuation order was lifted for the Golden Bear Estates Area late Thursday. Canyon Creek and Lake Solano campgrounds have been evacuated.
The Red Cross opened an evacuation center in Winters at its Community Center and another for large animals at 29775 County Road 31 in Winters. The Red Cross housed 11 displaced residents Wednesday evening, said Robin Friedman, regional disaster officer for the Red Cross.
Haefner said the only reason his home was spared was because of the defensible space he created. Although fires raged nearby, Haefner decided to stay put at his property in order to keep an eye on 45 head of cattle he could not evacuate.
“There’s still hot spots here and there,” Haefner said. “There’s charred ground all around, so the likelihood that the fire will roll back to us is pretty slim.”
Bee staff writers Cathy Locke and Bill Lindelof contributed to this report. Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz