Summer 2017 is shaping up to be a busy season for firefighters.
The most recent fire in the Mother Lode was reported about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in the area of Quail Oaks Road and Oak Hill Drive in Valley Springs. As of 5:45 p.m., the Quail Fire had scorched about 50 acres, and about 35 homes had been evacuated while firefighters combated the blaze.
The cause of the fire was determined to be a push-behind lawn mower, which, when gas powered, can ignite dry vegetation. The owner was cited for owning equipment that started a fire, not having proper tools, such as a shovel within 25 feet of his equipment, and allowing a fire to escape his control.
Cal Fire TCU Public Information Office Melinda Shoff could not identify the origin point of the blaze, or if the lawn mower was gas powered, but a charred push behind the lawn mower was identified near the top of a hill on the 1900 block of Oak Hill Drive. The address was included in a Cal Fire press release as a focal point of the fire.
The fire began small but quickly spread to 15, then 50 acres, a Cal Fire press release stated. The fire was 55 percent contained as of 5:45 p.m. Wednesday, said Shoff.
Resources responding to the fire included 13 engines, one bulldozer, two hand crews, one Air Attack plane, one helicopter and multiple personnel from surrounding agencies.
Homes in the area of Quail Oaks Road to Crown Court, Butler Lane to Dale Lane and all of Covey Lane were evacuated. Evacuation orders were lifted about 5:45 p.m., allowing residents to return to their homes, and there were no reported injuries or damage to structures as of that time.
Throughout California, fire season is in full force from the Northern Sierras in Oroville down along the coastline to Santa Barbara.
In Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, Cal Fire has been hard at work putting out fires that have cropped up recently in Columbia, Sonora and Valley Springs.
A declaration of fire season varies from year to year and is contingent on factors including weather; the amount of grasses, brush and other fuels available; the moisture content of fuels; and the progression of tree mortality, Kilgore said. But since May 1 — which is when burn permits were required for properties outside of Sonora — the Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit has dealt with 214 vegetation fires and a total of 602 acres burned, not including Wednesday’s Quail Fire, said Cal Fire Public Information Officer Emily Kilgore.
Some of the recent fires to strike the Sonora area, such as the Chile Gulch Road Fire on July 10, the Columbia Mobile Home Park Fire on July 5, and the Borden Road fire in the Big Hill area of Columbia on June 19, still remain under investigation, Kilgore said.
During the course of the investigation into the origin of a fire, Kilgore said, steps taken include the protection of a potential area of origin, interviews with witnesses and subjects of interest, and following a fire’s path to its point of origin. Data collection also includes weather observation and information from the person who initially reports a fire.
The Chile Gulch Road fire burned about three acres and came within 100 feet of structures before it was brought under control by responding firefighters.
Firefighting aircraft including Tanker 83, Tanker 62, Air Attack 500 and Helitack 517 made multiple fire retardant drops on the blaze while fighting the fire.
The Columbia Mobile Home Park Fire on the 22200 block of Parrotts Ferry Road destroyed two structures, damaged another and displaced five people, according to Cal Fire.
Mobile homes 11, 13 and 15 burned in the fire.
One chief and five engines from Cal Fire, one chief and three engines from Tuolumne County Fire, two engines from Columbia Fire and one engine from Sonora Fire responded.
The Big Hill fire burned a structure, outbuilding and surrounding vegetation before it was brought under control. No people were in the area or inside the homes, and evacuations were not required, Cal Fire said. At the time of the fire, Shoff speculated that hot conditions and light winds drying vegetation may have provided fuel sources for the fire.
In the last few days, Cal Fire has additionally responded to a structure fire on the 2000 block of Stagecoach Road and North Horseshoe Road in Copperopolis.
But common to some of the more recent fires in the area, she added, has been improper equipment use or a lack of preparation by people operating equipment.
While operating mobile, gas-powered tools such as chainsaws, weedeaters and blowers, a person must have a 46-inch round-point shovel and an approved fire extinguisher within 25 feet of them at all times.
When operating stationary equipment such as generators or cutting torches, a person must maintain a 10-foot clearance around the equipment and also have a 46-inch round point shovel and a “backpack pump water fire extinguisher” available in the area.
Any equipment with an internal combustion engine, such as lawnmowers and other vehicles, must have a spark arrestor, which prevents the emission of flammable debris from the engine.
If a fire is started and escapes its point of origin and the site where a machine or equipment is used, a person can be charged with a misdemeanor for negligent operation of equipment and can be held responsible for property damage and fire suppression costs.
“We are trying to educate the public and communities of safe equipment use through social media, one-on-one contact and informational handouts,” Kilgore said.
Firefighters responded to multiple vegetation fires caused by equipment use, a press release posted to the Cal Fire Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit Facebook page stated. The release cited a half-acre fire on the 12500 block of Horseshoe Road in Oakdale on July 10 as the result of a piece of equipment that did not have a spark arrestor.
Cal Fire began “defensible space” Inspections on March 1. Defensible space requires that residents remove dead vegetation within 30 feet of a home and thin live vegetation within 100 feet of a home or to a property line
Negligence is also the cause of some fires.
Over the course of the Independence Day weekend, Cal Fire responded to the area of a small vegetation fire on Athena Drive in Copperopolis that was believed to be the result of illegal fireworks detonated on July 3. Also on July 3, Cal Fire’s Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit cited five people, Brian Orozco Ramos, Oscar Orozco Ramos, Joshua Lopez, Joseph Lopez and Grisham Delarosario, for the possession of a fireworks without a permit on the Lake Tulloch bridge.
But while some fires are accidental, Cal Fire must still be on hand to respond to blazes that may be of a criminal origin.
On June 22, Jeffrey Ryan Best, 52, was arrested near Camp Chinquapin near Pinecrest Reservoir after trespassing on a trailer that did not belong to him.
Best had made statements to deputies that led them to believe he had lit a fire in a barbecue in the garage of one of two cabins that were engulfed in flames just prior to his trespassing arrest. Responding fire agencies included Pinecrest, Mi-Wuk-Sugar Pine, Twain Harte, Stanislaus National Forest and Cal Fire. Firefighting personnel extinguished the blaze before it spread to surrounding wildlife or other cabins.