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Growth of Caldor Fire in Calif. Prompting Evacuations

Precise destruction tallies are not yet available due to dangerous conditions, Cal Fire says, but Sacramento Bee journalists observed many homes, a post office, an elementary school and a church all burned to the ground in Grizzly Flats.

US-NEWS-CALIF-WILDFIRES-MCT
A thick plume of smoke from the Caldor Fire, as captured on a U.S. Forest Service wildfire monitoring camera shortly after 8 a.m. Tuesday, August 17, 2021. The fire has prompted urgent evacuations near Grizzly Flats. (U.S. Forest Service via Alertwildfire Network/TNS)
U.S. Forest Service via Alertwil/TNS
(TNS) - The Caldor fire continued extreme growth for a second straight night in El Dorado County, with winds rocketing the fire dangerously close to well-populated communities along Highway 50 and surrounding areas late Tuesday.

Sheriff’s officials that evening issued a number of new evacuation orders across a sprawling range of territory, including the entirety of Pollock Pines, Cedar Grove and Kyburz; most of Camino; eastern portions of Pleasant Valley and Somerset; a large stretch between Mormon Emigrant Trail and Highway 88; and areas near the Union Valley, Ice House and Loon Lake reservoirs.

The fire on Tuesday devastated the community of Grizzly Flats, population of about 1,200, within hours of the town being urgently evacuated.

At least two civilians were airlifted to hospitals with injuries described as “severe” and “serious,” both of them picked up in Grizzly Flats, Cal Fire and Forest Service officials said in a joint statement.

Precise destruction tallies are not yet available due to dangerous conditions, Cal Fire says, but Sacramento Bee journalists observed many homes, a post office, an elementary school and a church all burned to the ground in Grizzly Flats.

The fire as of 7 a.m. Wednesday had grown to 53,772 acres, more than eight times bigger than the 6,500 acres reported 24 hours earlier, according to incident updates from Cal Fire’s Amador-El Dorado Unit. The blaze grew more than 30,000 acres overnight.

MAJOR DESTRUCTION NEAR GRIZZLY FLATS, BUT SOME HOMES STANDING

The fire appeared to have flared up overnight in the Grizzly Flats area, which had been largely obliterated Monday night.

Early Wednesday, hot spots were still burning throughout what had once been neighborhoods, but a handful of houses had survived, some because they had defensible space and no trees nearby.

A retirement home belonging to Rege and Janet Brannagan on Meadow Glen Drive appeared to be one of only two that survived the fire.

Their son, Mike Brannagan, said in a phone interview from San Luis Obispo Wednesday that his parents had evacuated around 9 a.m. Monday night, hours before the mandatory order to get out.

“They were smart,” Brannagan said. “They didn’t want to be scrambling at 3 in the morning.”

The family had managed to pack photos, paintings and other items to take to safety as they evacuated to Cameron Park, Brannagan said, adding that he wonders what his parents will be returning to with much of the community destroyed.

“The crazy part was my dad just talked to me about it Saturday because of the Dixie fire,” he said.

TWO EVACUATION SHELTERS AT CAPACITY

The American Red Cross in Northern California said shortly after 8:30 a.m. that the Cameron Park Community Center was full.

A shelter at the Diamond Springs Fire Hall was also reportedly full.

The El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office was directing residents in need of shelter to go to Green Valley Church, located at 3500 Missouri Flat Road in Placerville.

‘CAN THEY MAKE US?’ SOME STAY DESPITE EVACUATIONS

Authorities went door to door in areas of Pollock Pines early Wednesday ordering residents to leave the area.

Although a mandatory evacuation had been ordered Tuesday night, law enforcement officials at first took no immediate efforts to evacuate residents or to set up roadblocks to keep visitors from coming in.

That changed shortly after midnight, when law enforcement sirens began blaring throughout town and authorities set up roadblocks and began ordering people in the community of 7,000 to leave immediately, including residents of the Sly Park area who had taken refuge in Pollock Pines earlier in the day.

Several groups had set up camp in a CVS drug store parking lot Tuesday after being evacuated from the Sly Park area. The fire had chewed through forest land above the Sly Park Recreation Area through most of Tuesday.

But some chose to ignore the Wednesday morning evacuation order.

Candie Calderon, who was sitting in a pickup truck filled with belongings and had parked a trailer in the CVS lot as a temporary home, said law enforcement officers came through the lot early Wednesday ordering people to leave.

“They told us they were going to clear the parking lots,” Calderon said. “They said they were going to clear all of Pollock Pines, to go down the hill.”

Calderon said she was evacuated Tuesday afternoon from the Sly Park area.

“We’ve only been here a little bit,” she said. “We’re debating. Can they make us?”

She said she did not know whether her house had survived the flames.

HIGHWAY 50 STILL OPEN

Authorities were concerned early Wednesday with the prospect of the fire jumping Highway 50 near Fresh Pond and forcing the closure of the roadway.

Although ash was falling in the area, there were no obvious signs of flames near the highway between Pollock Pines and the south fork of the American River early Wednesday, and firefighting crews were positioning themselves along frontage roads near the highway.

As of 7 a.m. Wednesday, the highway has not closed.

‘UNPRECEDENTED’ FIRE ACTIVITY IN EL DORADO

Cal Fire and U.S. Forest Service officials in a late Tuesday night update reported the fire at 22,919 acres, down from an estimate of 30,000 acres earlier in the evening due to better mapping but still an intense increase from 6,500 acres that morning. The fire remains 0% contained.

“The Caldor fire experienced unprecedented fire behavior and growth due to extremely dry fuels pushed by the south winds,” officials wrote in an 11 p.m. incident report.

Evacuation orders now extend to within about 5 miles of the eastern outskirts of Placerville, the seat of El Dorado County with a population of about 12,000. The Placerville Police Department said authorities are monitoring the situation, but no formal evacuations or warnings were in effect for the immediate Placerville area as of early Wednesday.

The state Office of Emergency Services reported around 7 p.m. that close to 7,000 residents had evacuated from El Dorado County, but that total likely grew by thousands as more people left the Pollock Pines area later in the evening.

Evacuation centers have been set up at the Cameron Park Community Services District center and Green Valley Church in Placerville, as well as Diamond Springs Fire Hall, which was full as of Tuesday night, according to Cal Fire.

The Forest Service announced late Tuesday that Eldorado National Forest will be closed to the public now through the end of September due to the Caldor fire.

The Caldor fire ignited Saturday evening about 4 miles south of Grizzly Flats, which is about 10 miles south of Highway 50 at Pollock Pines. Activity remained relatively calm until Monday night, when the two agencies reported “extreme” growth beginning in the northeasterly direction. Evacuations began, some of them issued around 3:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Authorities also on Tuesday morning ordered the evacuation of Sly Park, a popular campground by Jenkinson Lake.

Very rapid spread continued essentially all of Tuesday, day and night, as crews continued to struggle with rugged terrain, extremely dry vegetation brought on by drought conditions and limited personnel due to other major fires burning in Northern California, most notably the Dixie Fire.

“We are all competing for the same precious resources,” Cal Fire incident commander Dusty Martin said during a briefing Tuesday evening.

THICK SMOKE PROMPTS AIR QUALITY CONCERNS

Massive, multi-layered smoke plumes resembled volcanic eruptions at times: so-called pyrocumulus clouds, as seen throughout Tuesday on Alert Wildfire network cameras maintained by the Forest Service.

The skies adopted a thick haze tens of miles away in each direction, darker and more ominous to the east, including near Lake Tahoe, but also significant near the Sacramento area. The National Weather Service in Reno shared a short video taken in Gardnerville, Nev., showing red skies and ash falling in a snow-like trickle.

Making matters worse, a red flag warning from the National Weather Service warned that strong gusts could sweep heavy amounts of smoke from the wildfire to the south and southwest. Not only will that stir more intense fire behavior, but it is also likely to plague wide swaths of the Sacramento region, Central Valley and the greater Bay Area with poor to dismal air quality for much of this week.

NEWSOM DECLARES EMERGENCY

Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for the Caldor fire on Tuesday.

California also on Tuesday secured a fire assistance grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The state received two additional FEMA grants earlier in the day, for the Dixie Fire burning in Lassen County and Monument Fire in Trinity County.

©2021 The Sacramento Bee. Visit at sacbee.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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