Guy McCarthy
The Union Democrat
Scott Carpenter
The Union Democrat

A vehicle with mechanical problems may have sparked a fast-moving wildfire Sunday east of San Andreas in Calaveras County, prompting evacuations and stories of close escapes.

“My understanding is there were four different fires along the road, and there was also a vehicle fire at the end of that,” Chief Josh White of Cal Fire’s Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit said Sunday evening.

The fire was reported at 1:07 p.m., off Willow Creek Road and Mountain Ranch Road, east of San Andreas, Cal Fire personnel said. As of 6:30 p.m. it had burned 480 acres, White said.

“Ultimately all four fires burned together and that’s what made the initial attack difficult, because of having to spread resources out on four different fires,” White said. “Ultimately as they progressed, they all burned together.”

Wind and multiple points of origin aided the rapid spread of the blaze, which forced evacuations of the nearby Willow Valley subdivision, White said.

“It was a really fast-moving fire right out of the gate,” White said. “I’ve been told it was being wind-driven at the time.”

The fire was initially reported as advancing southeast, Lindy Shoff of Cal Fire’s San Andreas communications center said. The point of origin is east of the turnoff to Calaveritas Road and west of Rocky Road, placing the start location outside and west of the 110-square-mile burn zone scorched by the 2015 Butte Fire.

“The forward rate of spread has slowed,” White said. “We’re starting to get around it.”

As of 6:30 p.m. the fire was estimated to be 15 percent contained, Shoff said. There were no injuries reported to civilians or firefighters.

White said that as of Sunday evening one residential structure was damaged and one outbuilding was destroyed.

“Evacuation warnings have been lifted for the Calaveritas area between Rocky Road and Old Gulch Road,” Shoff at 6:15 p.m. “We’re allowing residents only back in the Willow Valley subdivision, which was under mandatory evacuation earlier.”

According to Calaveras County sheriff’s personnel, an evacuation center was set up at San Andreas Town Hall, 24 Church Road in San Andreas.

There were 300 fire personnel assigned to the blaze as of Sunday evening, Shoff said. Resources at the Willow Fire included 46 engines, nine fire crews, seven bulldozers, seven water trucks, two retardant-dropping tanker planes, one helicopter and one air attack lead plane.

Shoff said the cause of the fire was being investigated.

Peggy Stout, who said she believed she was the first one to be evacuated from the area, learned about the fire when she saw the fire chief driving furiously up the hill by her house.

“I knew it was something serious just by watching Don Young drive in,” she recounted while staying at the evacuation center in the San Andreas town hall. “He wouldn’t come in like that if it was nothing.”

She looked out her windows and saw the smoke. Within moments — it was then about 1:10 p.m., she estimated — she was out the garage door and preparing to drive away. She hadn’t even had time to grab her laptop.

“You just do it because you have to,” said Stout, who is retired but works part-time at the Mark Twain Health Care District. “You don’t want to. But you can’t stay either.”

Young returned from an adjacent home with one of their neighbors, whom Stout took into her vehicle. The last thing he said, she recalled, was to close her garage. An open garage door can sometimes help a fire breathe and grow stronger.

Stout drove to an area farther down Mountain Ranch Road and waited for several hours.

Richard McDermed said he saw three areas out of which large columns of smoke emanated, indicating that the fire had grown out of three starting points.

“I walked outside and there was fire here and a fire here and a fire here,” he said. “I was walking across the living room, thinking, wow, we’ve got blue sky today. And all of a sudden it went dark, the sun went behind a cloud.”

At the evacuation center, where the number of Red Cross volunteers roughly equaled the six or seven evacuees, residents of the area appeared optimistic that their homes had not been lost. But with memories of the Butte Fire still fresh — the colossal fire ravaged thousands of acres not far from here — area residents had learned not to assess the situation too quickly.

Stout has now had to evacuate her home three times in her life. She lost one home as a result of those three, the house where she had raised her children. She was luckier during the Butte Fire, but was close to many who were not.

“I have probably a hundred friends who lost their homes,” she said. “That could have been me.”