Wind whips wildland fire

By: Brandon Darnell
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A wind-whipped fire torched more than 700 acres at McCourtney and Wise roads Monday afternoon, reportedly burning at least one home and forcing the evacuation of many residents of the area. By 8:30 p.m., the fire was considered 60 percent contained, and mop-up would continue at least through the night. The fire was initially reported at approximately 12:40 p.m. Monday. Numerous agencies responded to the fire throughout the afternoon, including three air tankers, four helicopters, 52 engines, two dozers, fourwater tenders and eight crews, with teams from Sac Metro, South Placer, Roseville, Rocklin, Foresthill, Newcastle and Placerville. By 7 p.m., more than 400 personnel were on the scene. Resident Ruben Ayala squinted through the smoke Monday afternoon, trying to catch a glimpse of his home as airplanes and helicopters continually dropped fire retardant. Fire engines lined the roads, their crews battling the main fire and the hot spots started as the wind threw hot ashes into dry grass. Two hours earlier, at approximately 1 p.m., Ayala said, he came home to find firefighters battling a grass fire next to his house. They told him to evacuate, and he only had time to grab his dogs before retreating to a neighbor’s house. “They told me they’d be there to protect it,” he said. Ayala has never had to deal with a fire so close to his home before, but he said he trusted the firefighters to protect his house. Nearby residents all stood outside their homes, watching the blaze and hoping it didn’t come any closer. “Our cars are packed up,” said Carolyn De Witt, one of Ayala’s neighbors. “This is the closest something has ever come to our house.” The De Witts smelled the smoke before they ever saw any flames, and from 1:30 p.m. onward, they stood out front and watched the fire steadily approach, hoping the winds would die down and allow fire crews to get it under control. At one point, their power went out, and hot ashes were hitting their cars. De Witt said her husband built their house, and to think of it going up in smoke was heartbreaking. “That’s the most sickening thing to think about,” she said. “We keep the fields down,” she added. “All we can do is mow the grass and keep it as short as possible.” The cause remains under investigation, said a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesperson. One farmhouse was burned to the ground by 3 p.m. Trucks and farm implements were left burning in the yard. Two other structures were reported destroyed. As the flames continued to consume the vehicles in the farmyard, fire trucks moved to catch up with the fire on the road out front and helicopters and airplanes dropped fire retardant and water on flames nearby. With thick smoke billowing across Wise Road, traffic was held back and by about 3 p.m., the flames roared across the rural roadway. Marsha Stevens had driven a quad-runner through the smoke as neighbors helped neighbors try to round up sheep and other livestock. She stopped for a moment to observe the remains of the burned house – a chimney standing straight up and ashes around it. "It's a tragedy," Stevens said. "You never want to see your neighbor's place burned like that." "The wind did pick up this afternoon," information officer JoAnn Cartoscelli said Monday evening. "We had gusts up to 30 mph. Right now, the wind is at 10 to 18 mph. We are in a red-flag watch ... It's a concern." By 8:30 p.m., firefighters at Virginiatown and Fowler roads said the fire was being considered contained. "The forward progress has been stopped and we are in the mop-up process," said Butte County firefighter Mike Kennefic. He said firefighters will remain on duty through the night and probably through Tuesday. "It hit some roads and some orchards, that slowed it down," Kennefic said. "We had engines at the right place at the right time -- and the aircraft helped a lot." Evacuees were being allowed to return home from the evacuation center at Carlin C. Coppin Elementary School. The pavilion at McBean Park was to be staffed all night in case anyone still needed shelter. Earlier in the evening, volunteers from the Red Cross and Lincoln CERT were on hand at the school to assist evacuees, offering water and a place to regroup. Jennifer Caszatt held her 8-week-old baby, Mary Jane, as she and other members of the Harmon family waited for word on when they could return to their home near Mt. Pleasant. "We were afraid it was going to blow back up at us and we didn't want to take any chances," Caszatt said. "We just threw (the baby's) clothes and bassinet in the car and grabbed the dog and took off." The only road remaining closed at 8:30 p.m. was Virginiatown between Fowler and Hungry Hollow. An animal evacuation center has been opened at Gold Country Fairgrounds in Auburn. Gold Country Media reporter Gus Thomson and News Messenger editor Liz Kellar contributed to this report.