A fire broke out Thursday afternoon west of Seco Street outside Jamestown, scorching more than 20 acres as pilots, wildland firefighters, engine crews and law enforcement responded.

Scores of apartment complex dwellers watched anxiously as the fire grew.

The fire broke out before 3:30 p.m., on land south of Preston Lane that included private property signs and barbed wire fencing, across from several apartment complexes, including the Jamestown Apartments at 17925 Seco St.

Cal Fire Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit staff said the blaze was reported at 3:11 p.m. in the 10000 block of Preston. Ten engine crews, one bulldozer, and four water tank trucks were among the resources sent to the growing fire.

As of 4:45 p.m., forward progress had been stopped, but the fire was not yet contained. Fire agencies were calling it 24 acres burned total. The cause of the fire was being investigated. Chief Josh White with Cal Fire TCU said he could not confirm unsubstantiated rumors in the neighborhood that kids playing with fire sparked the blaze.

Responding aircraft included a helitack chopper carrying wildland firefighters, which landed, dropped firefighters off, fixed a bucket and started doing water drops on the fast-moving, smoke-billowing blaze that turned day to eery nighttime hues at times.

Low-flying tanker pilots dropped clouds of red retardant on flaming grasses and other vegetation. A spotter plane kept watch and directed air traffic for the helicopter and tanker pilots. The water-dropping helicopter pilot had to avoid power lines along Seco Street and other obstacles as he maneuvered close to the ground.

Firefighters on the ground like Engineer Paul Lombardi of Cal Fire’s Jamestown Station hauled hose and hand tools into the burn zone to fight the blaze up close.

Cheryl Holm, a resident on Seco Street the past 18 months, said she came outside about 3:30 p.m. and saw smoke across Seco. She told her neighbor and the fire was getting bigger because winds were picking up.

“There were flames shooting up on this side,” Holm said. “Then a helicopter hit it at least four times. They hit it hard.”

Penny Bradley, a resident on Seco for 12 years, said the fire came close before firefighters got the upper hand and the winds subsided slightly.

In front of the Jamestown Apartments, some residents used garden hoses to wet down the sloping brown grass lawns and brown leaves that lay dry in the hot sun across the street from the blackened, smoking, stinking burn zone. Odors coming off the fire included something that smelled like creosote-treated wood.

Danny De Leon lives in an upstairs unit at Jamestown Apartments and he’s been there about 11 years. He and a neighbor said the last fire across the street on the same land was seven to eight years ago, and firefighters kept that one on the other side of the road, too.

Mekhi Holm, 17, who lives in an apartment complex in the 17900 block of Seco, said he was impressed by the aerial firefight and other sights and sounds of the spectacle that unfolded in front of him and his neighbors.

“The aircraft, the flames, the smoke,” he said. “It was intense.”

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.