I-80 drivers try in vain to snuff out Applegate Fire

Evacuation center up in Colfax
By: Gus Thomson, of the Auburn Journal
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“It got too big, too fast.”

Pete Enochs was witness to the beginnings of an inferno that spread quickly through the Applegate area from its origin as a series of spot fires that started alongside Interstate 80.

Enochs was driving from his Bowman home to Colfax on Wednesday afternoon when he spotted the first of three small fires he would see along a stretch of eastbound I-80.

“A man and woman were out of their vehicle, trying to put the fire out,” Enochs said.

Enochs, co-owner of the former Latitudes restaurant in Auburn for many years, viewed another small fire about a half mile closer to Colfax and saw a woman calling that blaze in to fire dispatchers.

The third fire was on the east side of the freeway near the West Paoli Lane exit, with no one stopped to do anything about it. Enochs said he drove onto the side of the freeway and tried to extinguish a 2-square-foot patch by stomping on it. But there was another fire near the small one. Enochs said he realized the larger fire was out of control and he could do nothing about that one. So he phoned in his own report to a dispatcher.

“He said I wasn’t the only one,” Enochs said. “They were all in about a 3-mile stretch.”

The breeze-driven flames would travel east into the Applegate area, sending a plume of white smoke into the air that could be seen from Colfax and Auburn.

On the ground, residents in the heavily wooded eastern side of the freeway were evacuating with whatever they could get into their pickups and cars.

Jim Doolittle, a Ponderosa Way resident, said that he could see flames on a nearby hillside and left before receiving any evacuation order.

“I saw the smoke and fire and said, ‘I’ve gotta go,’” Doolittle said, as he sat in his van at an evacuation center set up at the Sierra Vista Community Center in Colfax. “It’s the first time I’ve had to run from a fire. Hopefully, I’ve got a house to go back to.”

While Cal Fire officials have said several fires started along I-80 and could have originated with “a poorly maintained vehicle or other human-related activity,” Doolittle said that he believed that it had been set.

“I hope they catch who did it,” Doolittle said. “It wasn’t an accident.”