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Matthew Hedger
07/31/2014 8:33 AM
Photo courtesy to the Amador Ledger Dispatch

A person who reportedly drove a vehicle into dry vegetation in a tributary of the Cosumnes River near Gold Beach is being blamed for touching off a roaring inferno that burned nineteen homes and threatened hundreds more before it was finally brought under control this week.

Full containment of the Sand Fire is expected sometime tomorrow as crews continue to mop up hot spots along both sides of the river boundary between El Dorado and Amador counties.

First reported at around 4:30 p.m. Friday, the fire quickly grew in size from 50 to 100 acres, and Amador Sheriff’s deputies were going door-to-door on Bell Road asking residents to voluntarily evacuate after the fire jumped into Amador County just before 5:30 p.m. Amador Sheriff Martin Ryan said only about half of the residents contacted complied with the request to evacuate. Highway 49 was also closed to all but fire personnel for a short time.

As night fell, the fire grew to 1,300 acres, and mandatory emergency evacuations were being ordered in both El Dorado and Amador counties in areas including Buzzards Gulch Road, Sand Ridge Road, Fresh Water, Burlwood, Morales Ranch Road, Vintage Trail, Upton Road and Twin Rivers Road. The fire came within 200 yards of the Story Winery, in Amador County, which quickly became an unofficial vantage point for both fire officials and members of the news media. Nearby Rancho Cicada bore the worst of the fire, losing several structures, including some that contained antique cars.

Amador Foothill Winery, on Steiner Road, in the Shenandoah Valley, had been up for sale for more than two years when buyers recently appeared from Lava Cap Winery, in El Dorado County. Escrow on the winery closed at 10:30 a.m.Friday morning, and sellers Ben Zeitman and Katie Quinn passed ownership over to the Jones family. Fortunately, the fire skirted around the property, and the vineyard was saved.

On Saturday morning, CALFIRE reported the Sand Fire was still at 1,300 acres, but was 20 percent contained, as many residents began evacuating animals and themselves to the El Dorado Fairgrounds in Placerville, and to the Amador County Fairgrounds in Plymouth, where the 2014 County Fair was in full swing and smoke from the fire dominated the skyline. A Red Cross relief center was set up at Ponderosa High School in Placerville for displaced residents on both sides of the river. As of 8 a.m., CALFIRE reported five residences and seven outbuildings had burned, and 672 fire personnel were on scene, one of which, an inmate firefighter, had sustained a minor injury.

By Saturday evening, despite heroic efforts by firefighters trying to hold the line during the day, the fire had nearly quadrupled in size, reportedly consuming 4,000 acres. Evacuation orders were extended along Vintage Road to Sandridge Road and Vintage Road to Morning Canyon Road in El Dorado. The California Highway Patrol also closed the roads leading into River Pines in Amador as the fire continued to threaten. At 7:20 p.m., CALFIRE reported 1,464 fire personnel in 45 fire crews were using 149 fire engines, 16 dozers, 22 water tenders, 6 helicopters and 6 air tankers, including very large air tankers converted from passenger planes, to battle the blaze.

Amador Ledger Dispatch’s own Conni Boyd said although her neighborhood along Pigeon Trail in River Pines was never under mandatory evacuations, she and her daughter packed up the family cat and rabbit, loaded up the car with pictures, a wedding album, and other irreplaceables before fleeing the area.

“When we woke up Saturday, the sky was pretty clear and we thought, ‘Maybe it’s over,’” she said. “So my son went to the fair and my husband went to a golf tournament. But about 11 a.m., we started to hear helicopters again, and one of those very large air tankers went over so low it shook the house, so I thought, ‘Ok, we better get ready to leave.”

Boyd said it was about this time she heard someone honking a car horn on the main road in town and yelling for residents to evacuate.

“So we were running around and I didn’t know if it was official or not, but we weren’t going to take any chances.” Leaving their house unlocked in case firefighters had to enter, Boyd said a light ash was falling from the sky as she dropped off the pets at a friend’s home in Plymouth, before collecting the rest of her family and heading to a relative’s home in Roseville and safety.

Late Saturday, El Dorado Sheriff John D’Agostini reported 606 voluntary evacuations and 477 mandatory evacuations had taken place in his jurisdiction, and a reverse 911 system was used five separate times to warn over one thousand citizens as the fire progressed. Sheriff Ryan also reported using a reverse 911 system to warn residents, after it was reported that Riverpines Estates, a smaller subdivision near the town, was also being evacuated.

At one point during the blaze, at least one spotter plane and a helicopter reported seeing an unmanned drone aircraft flying through the restricted airspace above and around the fire scene. CALFIRE spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said a man, whom she did not identify, had been asked to stop flying it because of the potential danger to firefighting planes. “This is the first one that I’m aware of,” she told reporters. “These unmanned aircraft are becoming very popular with people, and there’s a possibility we will see more of them.”

The Amador Ledger Dispatch has learned that El Dorado County Sheriff’s deputies made contact with Jason Bross, a self-proclaimed photographer who posted on his Facebook page, “This fire started on July 25th and I was very close. I had my drone with me, so I put it up and here is the footage.”

A barrage of negative comments lambasted Bross when word got out he may have impeded firefighter efforts with his drone, but most of those had been deleted as of Tuesday morning. On Bross’s YouTube channel, he posted, “Lesson learned, not a good idea to fly near a fire. Won’t be doing that again.”

In another “mea culpa” post that has since been deleted, Bross wrote, “Well, I didn’t expect to make USA TODAY news. Lesson learned. If there is a fire near, leave it alone. Just so everyone knows, I told the sheriffs and Cal Fire people that the video was old news from yesterday and that I would not go out today at all and fly any drones.” An investigation into Bross’ activities is still underway after he also posted pictures of himself riding a motorcycle through the fire zone with peaches he may have taken from one of the trees surrounding a home in the fire zone area.

By noon on Sunday, the Amador fairgrounds had become the temporary home to twelve horses, seven rabbits, seven goats, four cats, three dogs and more than a dozen chickens, according to fair marketing director Karen Spencer, who told reporters, “We’re right in the middle of our fair, but our livestock people are just moving over and making room.”

As of 7:30 p.m., Sunday evening, CALFIRE reported the Sand fire was 50 percent contained and downgraded the area burned to 3,800 acres after completing an updated map of the area. The total number of fire personnel called to the scene also rose dramatically with 1,905 firefighters working in 51 crews using 196 engines, 6 air tankers, 8 helicopters, 30 dozers and 52 water tenders called in.

By 9:10 a.m. Monday morning, the Sand Fire was 80 percent contained and officials were estimating full containment by today. 3,800 acres have burned, along with 13 residences and 38 outbuildings. Most of the evacuation orders were lifted and residents began returning home.

As the Amador Ledger Dispatch went to press this week, CALFIRE was reporting the Sand Fire charred 4,240 acres and was 95 percent contained, as of press time. Officials said the acreage increased due to precise Global Positioning Satellite mapping of the fire. In all, official assessments tally the number of residences burned at 19, along with 47 outbuildings. Of that number, just 9 were identified as being in Amador County, mostly at Rancho Cicada. All evacuation orders had been lifted, and the Red Cross evacuation center at Ponderosa High School has been closed. Fire personnel and equipment were being released or retasked to other fires burning in California, including the El Portal Fire in Yosemite. For a complete album of all the pictures taken by our reporters and community members during the event, visit our the Ledger Dispatch Facebook page.

Copyright © 2014 Amador Ledger Dispatch
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