County Fire ‘Growing a Lot Faster’ than Past Blazes, Spreads Glow and Ash over Bay Area
GUINDA, YOLO COUNTY — July 2, 2018
The smoke spewing from the peaks and gullies of the hillsides surrounding the tiny town of Guinda hasn’t completely disrupted the lives of the community’s 254 residents, but every so often the chop-chop-chop of an aircraft pierces the bucolic quiet. Residents of the rural enclave are apparently so accustomed to wildfires that state fire officials had to prematurely close the two evacuation centers.
Nobody came for the free bottled water and granola bars. Nobody even walked through the doors.
“Not sure why,” said Daniel Sanchez, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.
The County Fire scorching the hills of Yolo and Napa counties grew by about 25,000 acres Monday to 60,000 acres, about twice the size of San Francisco, at about 30,000 acres. The blaze has threatened more than 100 homes as crews attempted to get a handle on it, officials said. The inferno, which spread an orange glow and ash over much of the Bay Area, has burned an average of 1,000 acres an hour since it started Saturday along Highway 16 in Yolo County, said Blanca Mercado, a Cal Fire spokeswoman. The cause is under investigation.
By comparison, California’s most destructive wildfire in modern history was last October’s Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, which burned 36,810 acres. State fire officials have called the early outbreak of fires this year the “new normal.”
The County Fire was 5 percent contained Monday, after spreading into Napa County. State officials didn’t expect full containment until July 10.
Nevertheless, as Cal Fire’s Sanchez drove a dusty SUV down the town’s Main Street with “Information” in white paint on the windows, it seemed everyone here already knew the drill.
On the floor of the Capay Valley, fields of sunflowers rotated their faces with the sun and workers pruned fruit trees. A father and his two children rode bikes down the road with little automobile traffic.
Trini Campbell, wearing a blue-striped skirt, drove her red four-wheeler to the Guinda Corner Store, which opened in 1891. The 50-year-old runs a 350-acre farm and sells meat and eggs at farmers’ markets around the Bay Area. Her top priority was dry ice, even with a nearby fire raging.
“It’s pretty unusual to see something of this magnitude,” Campbell said of the blaze. “But we are used to having to do a lot on our own because we are so rural. We made defensible space around our structures and hay bales and rolled up the windows of our vehicle. Turns out embers can ignite upholstery — who knew?”
Since 2016, the acreage burning each season in California has steadily increased. In the first six months of this year, 53,024 acres have burned, compared with 38,418 acres this time in 2017, according to data compiled by Cal Fire. The figures do not include federal land within the state.
A total of 505,956 acres burned in 2017, more than double the 244,319 acres in 2016 due to wildfires, Cal Fire reported.
And yet, despite the massive fire at the town’s doorstep, life goes on in Guinda.
The wooden corner store was the locus of activity. Firefighters stopped for cold drinks, and farmworkers bought sandwiches and Budweiser. On a bulletin board near the store’s front door, flyers advertised the Yolo County summer reading program and horse-quality oat hay for sale.
“The tiniest Fourth of July parade ever!!” read one poster, encouraging residents to come to the Fire Department’s annual barbecue. The hot dogs and hamburgers would be free.
Jim Gibson, 71, was told to evacuate but did the opposite, stopping in for vanilla ice cream — the best flavor, in his opinion. He had spent the past few days bulldozing his own defensible space, because that’s what you do here.
“As long as nobody gets burned up, it’s good,” said Gibson, a retired heavy-equipment mechanic for Caltrans. “I’ve lived here for 71 years and have never seen a fire on this side of the hill. They should’ve studied the Indians that used to live here, because they knew a lot about fire management.”
He adjusted his red “Make America Great Again” cap and climbed into his car, hopeful that the flames would stay away and all would be quiet.
The fire threatened 116 homes and cabins but no businesses, officials said.
Mandatory evacuations were ordered for residents in Yolo County along Highway 128 between Monticello Dam and Pleasants Valley Road, south of County Road 23, east of Berryessa Knoxville Road and west of County Road 89.
The fast-moving fire has been fueled by strong winds, high temperatures and low humidity, said Scott McLean, Cal Fire’s deputy chief.
“It’s been burning in the southerly direction,” he said. “We are dealing with erratic wind behavior.”
More than 1,000 firefighters from 27 fire crews, 119 engines, 12 helicopters and 23 dozers were deployed to combat the County Fire, which is burning in “pretty much” the same area as the Rumsey Fire of 2004, McLean said.
The Rumsey Fire was started by an arsonist and determined to be the largest wildfire in the state that year, burning 39,138 acres. The conflagration destroyed four mobile homes and Cal Fire’s Berryessa lookout tower.
“The weather is not in our favor,” Cal Fire’s Mercado said, adding that the fire crept up steep terrain overnight and engulfed tall grass, dry brush and dense oak.
The weather Sunday night brought gusty winds that only pushed the fire farther with flying embers, McLean noted.
A cooling trend was continuing through the region late Monday, and winds were forecast to gradually switch from the north to the northwest, which resulted in less smoke and ash in the Bay Area, according to the National Weather Service.
A dry winter combined with the ongoing effects of the five-year drought that started in 2012 resulted in more dead trees and dry brush and grass, contributing to what seems like an especially sudden and volatile wildfire season. Though the past two years have brought some significant rain to the region, McLean said, it hasn’t been enough.
The County Fire “shows you what we are in store for,” he said.