WINTERS — Crews fought through a rugged landscape, triple-digit heat, gusty winds and the stark and chronic dryness of California’s long drought to make hard-earned progress against the Monticello Fire burning for its fourth day.
The flames have gobbled up more than 6,000 acres west of Winters, but as of this morning crews were able to increase containment of the Monticello Fire to 55 percent in the steep mountains near Lake Berryessa in Yolo County.
More than 1,900 firefighters battling the blaze Monday gained on its front end as temperatures soared past 100 degrees, said state fire spokesman Chris Christopherson. The heat was expected to reach the 90s today.
“We’re going to have an aggressive attack not only from the ground but the air as well to maintain our control lines,” Christopherson said.
All road closures were canceled Monday, a day after evacuation orders for about 40 homes were called off.
The fire has burned about 10 square miles since it began Friday. It has been stoked by gusty winds and fueled by thick, brittle brush that has not burned for at least two decades and is extremely dry because of the drought.
Cal Fire spokesman Kevin Lucero said the cause of the fire is unknown and is under investigation. Three firefighters have suffered minor injuries. Winters Fire Chief Aaron McAlister said 10 residences were threatened but none was destroyed.
Residents in the Golden Bear Estates and surrounding areas near Winters were watching the fireworks displays Friday in Winters and Davis from the hilltops, and began smelling smoke at about 9:30 p.m., said resident Merlyn Potters.
Within an hour, the smoke turned bright red, and flames started coming over the ridge about 11 p.m., Potters said. Her husband began preparing boxes to pack things in case an evacuation was ordered, which it was at about 1 a.m., and they were off their property within a half-hour.
Meanwhile, at Emerald Hills horse ranch at Highway 128 and Pleasants Valley Road, horse owner Sarah Dickenson was preparing for the worst.
“We were packed up and hitched up,” she said, and when the evacuation order came at 3 a.m., some of the horses were hauled to a friend’s house in Davis.
“We were going all night,” she said, adding that having an evacuation plan in place was the key to everything going smoothly.
“After the Pope Valley fire, I developed an evacuation plan. I had gas in the tank, and everything in working order. Horses aren’t like a kid that you can snap up and grab a coat and you’re outta there. Early preparation is better when it comes to horses.”
While residents near Positas Road and Golden Bear Estates watched the smoke and flames, waiting for an evacuation order, Cedar Seeger, owner of Four Winds Growers on the south side of Putah Creek, nervously watched and waited, too. His 80-acre citrus ranch was pretty much ignored by fire crews, who were concentrating on the flames that were gulping the dry brush north of Fishing Access No. 1 on Putah Creek, directly across the creek from Four Winds.
“I was really nervous,” Seeger said. “There were no crews or engines here the whole time.”
Luckily, the breezes shifted north, away from Putah Creek, and Seeger’s land was untouched. He said the skill of the Cal Fire teams and sheer luck saved his ranch.
“The reality is that we all dodged a huge bullet,” he said.
However, one property owner’s good fortune is another’s disaster. Much of the property north of the where the fire started belongs to Bobcat Ranch, a working livestock ranch that teaches conservation practices.
“We are a demonstration ranch — a research, education and outreach hub for learning conservation practices that benefits livestock operation,” said Carissa Koopman Rivers, rangeland manager.
Fortunately, the burned land is winter grazing land; the animals were all elsewhere and none was injured. However, of the ranch’s 6,822 acres, 4,000 where charred. Given that Cal Fire’s estimate of total acreage burned by the Monticello Fire is 6,688 acres, the bulk of that scorched earth belongs to Bobcat Ranch.
Because Bobcat Ranch is kept in a natural state, there’s not much that can be done to heal it except time and nature, Koopman Rivers said.
Her home, which sits on the edge of the fire line, became a staging area for the Cal Fire teams, with several bulldozers parked there and fire personnel coming and going.
“It’s been an experience — a lot of great folk to talk with and learn from,” she said, adding that fire crews are expected to be there up to two more weeks, “away from their families, mopping up, helping us and we greatly appreciate it.”
Visitors affected, too
Besides area residents and property owners, there were some visitors who had their holiday weekend turned upside down by the fire. The Red Cross set up an evacuation center at the Community Center at 4 a.m. Saturday, and before long, people started trickling in. Robin Friedman, regional director for the Red Cross, said the center wasn’t really that busy, but it was available to anyone who needed it.
Paula and Don Coombs were camping at Canyon Creek Resort with their children, Paul and Jenny O’Brien of San Mateo, and grandchildren, Carson, Cora and Ezra. They came into town to watch the fireworks when an evacuation order was placed on the campground. Unable to get back to retrieve their belongings, they had no choice but to wait it out at the Community Center.
The Red Cross supplied them with coffee and doughnuts, and at lunchtime, Chuy Salazar, owner of Chuy’s Taqueria, brought about three dozen donated burritos to the center for the evacuees and workers. Winters PTA member Melanie Pedraza heard that there were children among the evacuees, so she brought her own children and some games down to the Community Center to occupy the kids.
All in all, the family said they were treated well.
“Winters is not a bad place to be stuck,” Paula Coombs said.
By Saturday, the fire had swept up the hills and canyons to the north and east of Winters, and grew to about 3,000 acres. By Sunday, the acreage had doubled, and was estimated to be at 7,000 at one point, but that number was scaled back on Monday.
All weekend long, Winters smelled of smoke, the sky white at times depending on the direction of the wind. Many residents reported ash on their cars and patios.
From town, a thick layer of light gray smoke could be seen billowing from the hills, and at one point late Saturday evening, spots of flames could be seen on the western slope of the hills near the end of County Road 32B.
On Saturday morning, Highway 128 was closed to all but local traffic from Main Street to Highway 121, and the highway was closed to all traffic entirely at Pleasants Valley Road. County Road 87, the only entry/exit point for Golden Bear Estates, also was closed to traffic early Saturday morning. Golden Bear Estates was placed under mandatory evacuation early Saturday morning, but not all residents chose to leave.
Margaret Burns, who lives on a hilltop in Golden Bear Estates, was one of those who chose to say. She could see smoke coming from at least three ridges away and did not feel in any immediate danger. She and her husband, Roy Bellhorn, said they were ready to leave on a moment’s notice if necessary.
“We had our little bag packed and we were prepared to leave,” said Burns, who had nothing but praise for the fire personnel. “We are in total awe of the firefighters, the CHP, the sheriff and everything that they did. Everyone was always courteous and calm.”
“I have overwhelming gratitude to our firefighters and all of the other agencies that cooperated and made this something in our rear-view mirror,” she said. “Those personnel, they are phenomenal.”
By Monday afternoon, Cal Fire lifted the road closures and evacuations for all residents of along Highway 128 and Golden Bear Estates, as well as Canyon Creek resort. Residents and evacuated livestock started returning home.
Besides the Winters Fire Department personnel and volunteer firefighters, other agencies involved included Cal Fire; fire departments from Napa, Solano and Yolo counties, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. These agencies represented 60 fire crews, employing as many as six air tankers, 16 helicopters, 45 bulldozers and 26 water tenders. An incident-command center was set up at the Yolo County Fairgrounds in Woodland.
Also providing assistance and support services were the California Office of Emergency Services, the California Highway Patrol, the Bureau of Land Management, the Red Cross, PG&E, Yolo County Animal Services, Caltrans and city of Winters staff.
— Debra DeAngelo is the editor of The Winters Express. Follow her on Twitter at @debradeangelo. The Associated Press contributed to this story