It seemed almost too good to be true — a Fourth of July came and went without any major brush fires in fire-weary rural Winters west of town. By July 6, it indeed turned out too good after all. A brush fire erupted around 12:41 p.m. along Highway 128 near Pleasant View Road, and quickly blazed across the rugged hills and sent a tower of smoke into the sky, easily visible from town.
The Winters Fire Department, with Interim Fire Chief Greg Lewis serving as the incident commander, was the first crew on the scene and kept things as much under control as possible until CalFire crews arrived and took over from there. Lewis says after he arrived, he upped the situation to a two-alarm fire, which brought in more mutual aid.
In all, 19 fire crews (representing 528 personnel) from throughout the area responded to what was dubbed the Winters Fire, with 45 engines, seven water tenders, four bulldozers and several helicopters employed, as well as 13 air tanker runs dropping orange fire retardant, bringing the fire into control over the weekend, and into 90 percent containment by Monday, July 10, with 2,269 acres burned. By Tuesday (press day) these numbers had not changed.
Highway 128 was closed from Pleasants Valley Road to Markley Cove almost as soon as the fire broke out, and remained closed until 6 p.m. on Saturday, July 8. As has happened for the last three summers, residents of the Positas Road area and Golden Bear Estates were placed under mandatory evacuation, however, City Manager John Donlevy noted that many residents refused to leave this time and decided to take their chances with the fire.
This time, those residents got lucky, as the fire was contained to mainly the hills and valleys, but Lewis says the blaze did come right up to some houses. However, he notes, “we were able to keep it in the grass and landscaping and out of the structures.”
Lewis said this year’s fire began essentially the same as the fires of the last two years, however, this time there weren’t a lot of fires burning elsewhere in the state, so the Winters Fire had plenty of emergency responders available to fight it. In addition, the time of day was a bonus. The prior fires erupted at night, when firefighting aircraft can’t be employed. This year, with a lunchtime fire, Lewis says air tankers and helicopters were able to get a jump on the blaze. Another key factor in keeping the fire from spreading this year was very little wind.
Ben Nicholls, division chief of CalFire’s Pres-Fire Division and vegetation management program manager, says the prior fires may have actually helped this year, as much of the vegetation had already been burned. In addition, with three years of on-the-job practice the last three years, firefighters were very familiar with the area and how to best deal with the terrain, and where to establish staging areas for vehicles and equipment.
Nicholls notes that the terrain was still a challenge, and this year’s triple-digit heat wave made the firefighting all the more intense. There were three fire personnel injuries during the fire, with one firefighter suffering from the heat and transported by ambulance to the hospital and released later that night, and two more minor heat-related injuries that did not require hospitalization.
By Sunday, all of the evacuation orders were lifted, and although a handful of firefighters remained stationed at a nearby cattle ranch along Highway 128, many of the crews turned their attention to other larger fires that broke out in other areas later on. The remaining crew focused on hotspots and strengthening control lines.
Although the official cause of the blaze is under CalFire investigation, according to Lewis, the fire may have been sparked accidentally by a broken down vehicle coming near dry grass.
Here we go again
For residents in the Golden Bear Estates and parts east, the annual exodus to somewhere safer when fire breaks out is becoming routine. Golden Bear resident Tamsen Bhachech says she was out of the country when the fire erupted, but her parents were there and reported to her that the Winters Fire seemed to move more slowly than the previous wind-whipped blazes. She adds that the fire “was burning on land that had burned not long ago, and they didn’t feel as threatened as they did for the Monticello fire.
“They also said — and I’d agree — that after four years of fires, CalFire seems to be pretty familiar with the area and its needs, and they noticed how quickly they responded with the ‘big guns’ — planes dropping retardant, helicopters, big deployments — this year.
“All of us who live up here have developed a tremendous respect for CalFire and all the fire fighters. It’s not that we didn’t respect them before but we’ve seen firsthand four years in a row how well organized, well prepared and committed they are to their jobs.
“For people who don’t live in fire hazard areas, it’s hard to express and convey just how impressive these firefighters and coordinators are with their skills, abilities and dedication.”
Lisa Gaynes lives on the far edge of Golden Bear, and says this is the fourth year in a row she has evacuated during a fire. In her case, evacuation is additionally complicated because she has three horses to move, and horses are not always cooperative in these types of situations.
However, a seasoned fire veteran by now, Gaynes already had an evacuation plan in place and when fire broke out, she put it in motion. She says her horses are so accustomed to this annual summer ritual that “they think they’re going to the McMullen Spa & Resort.” She adds that her friend, who is always willing to help is “fabulous and so gracious.” Even so, enough is enough, and Gaynes admits that even when evacuation goes like clockwork, “it gets old.”
“Every time I hear helicopters, I have adrenalin rush. I think I have PTSD from the helicopters,” Gaynes says with a chuckle. “It’s this feeling that you have no control, and it’s frustrating not to be able to get information.”
Of those who chose to ignore evacuation orders, Gaynes says “If they tell you to evacuate, you should get out. Better safe than sorry.”
She notes that homeowners could follow the lead of horse owners, who must have an evacuation plan in place at all times.
“Horse people around here have a pretty good network. People started calling and offering trailers.”
She added that the list of Solano County residents offering refuge for horses, livestock and large animals posted on the Express Facebook page was reassuring, even though she didn’t need it this time.
But there’s always next year.
That’s a little fire country humor.
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