Parched-dry vegetation and other fuels combined with winds and at least one spark early Monday to ignite the Point Fire in the West Point area of the North Fork Mokelumne watershed, prompting a call for mandatory evacuations three hours before sunrise.
By Monday afternoon firefighters had stopped forward spread of the blaze at about 130 acres. The fire was said to be 10 percent contained as of Monday afternoon, and smoke continued billowing off the burn area and drifting north into Amador County, according to staff with Cal Fire’s Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit in San Andreas.
No fatalities or serious injuries were reported in the Calaveras County fires. At least one structure was feared lost in the Point Fire.
The toll from wind-driven fires was far worse farther west in the wine country counties of Sonoma and Napa, where authorities said at least three people had died and 1,500 homes and structures were lost to multiple fires Monday.
The Point Fire broke out on the northern edge of Calaveras County, east of Mokelumne Hill near Highway 26 and Higdon Road, prompting deputies to send mandatory evacuation orders for Higdon Road, Higdon Spink Road and Spink Road about 4 a.m..
Highway 26 was temporarily closed from Main Street in West Point to the Amador/Calaveras county line, Caltrans District 10 staff said.
Amador Health Department staff advised before noon Monday that some parts of Amador County were experiencing heavy smoke due to smoke drift from the Point Fire.
Also Monday, a fire broke out on Murphys Grade and crews stopped it at about 33 acres. The Murphys 2 Fire was said to be 30 percent contained.
Forecasters for the Mother Lode region and the rest of the Central Sierra have warned of critical fire weather conditions on a nearly daily basis over the past two weeks. Maximum wind gusts in the area including West Point, Wilseyville, Pioneer and Pine Grove ranged from 23 to 41 miles per hour late Sunday and Monday.
Addressing the crisis with 20,000 people evacuated from fire zones in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Yuba counties, Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott called damage estimates in wine country conservative.
Numerous people had been hurt and some were missing, though no estimates were immediately available, Pimlott said. He added there were likely multiple fatalities that had yet to be confirmed.
Some of the fires in wine country broke out late Sunday. Long lines formed at gas stations as many residents heeded middle-of-the-night wake-up calls to get out.
"It was an inferno like you've never seen before," said Marian Williams, who evacuated with neighbors before dawn as one of the wildfires reached vineyards and ridges at her small Sonoma County town of Kenwood.
Williams told the Associated Press she could feel the heat of fire through the car as she fled.
"Trees were on fire like torches," she said.
With downed trees or flames blocking routes, Sonoma County residents struggled to figure out what roads to take. Many of the fires spread suddenly, whipped by furious winds.
The city of Santa Rosa, with about 175,000 people, was hit hard. The city lost a Kmart, a Hilton Hotel, and an unknown number of other businesses and homes as the blaze shut down schools and forced patients at two hospitals to evacuate.
The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported multiple fires had destroyed entire neighborhoods.
“Imagine a wind-whipped fire burning at explosive rates. This is 50 miles per hour. Literally it's burning into the city of Santa Rosa ... burning box stores,” Pimlott told the Associated Press. “This is traditionally California's worst time for fires.”
Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said the fires had burned more than 68 square miles. Crews had not yet been able to contain a fire heading toward downtown Napa.
"Right now, with these conditions, we can't get ahead of this fire and do anything about the forward progress," Biermann said.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Nevada and Orange counties . Smoke was thick as far away as San Francisco, 60 miles south of the Sonoma County fire.
The Point Fire was reported at 1:05 a.m. Monday in the 22000 block of Highway 26 in West Point, Lindy Shoff with Cal Fire in San Andreas said. Assigned to the fire were a total 150 personnel including 22 engine crews, two bulldozers, four hand crews, five water tank trucks, two helicopters, one spotter plane and multiple supervisors.
The Murphys 2 Fire was first reported at 10:54 a.m. in the 1100 block of Murphys Grade Road and the 1100 Block of Rolleri Ranch Road, Shoff said. Resources assigned included 70 personne, 11 engine crews, two hand crews, one water tank truck and a half-dozen supervisors.
The causes of both fires were being investigated.
Brandi Ehler Merlo with Pacific Gas & Electric communications said there were more than 20 customers without power in the West Point area as of 2 p.m. At least two PG&E crews were out replacing wire and cross-arms on power poles. Crews hoped to have all customers restored by Monday evening.
Forecasters said breezy, gusty redflag conditions were supposed to ease Monday, with cooler, sunny weather expected across the Mother Lode the rest of this week, as much as 10 degrees cooler than Sunday and Monday.
Union Democrat reporter Guy McCarthy reported from Sonora. Associated Press staff reported from Sonoma, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle.
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.