The Delta Breeze returned Wednesday, breaking a string of six consecutive 100-plus degree days that created ideal conditions for the first big El Dorado Hills wildland fire in three years.
“We dodged a bullet,” said a sweat-soaked El Dorado Hills Deputy Chief Jim O’Camb, shortly after an estimated 100 firefighters gained the upper hand on what’s been dubbed the “Salmon Fire.”
“We heard about it before it got huge; we jumped on it quick; we got a lot of help, including great air support and the wind didn’t kick up too bad.”
Despite some tense moments early on, no one was hurt and no structures were destroyed.
Fire officials at the scene all said the Salmon Fire could easily have gone south … or north or west, depending on the wind, which can have a mind of its own in the steep chaparral surrounding the American River, where the fiercest firefights in the El Dorado Hills area have been fought.
This one was no exception. It burned roughly 100 acres off Salmon Falls Road between Miners Valley Road and Equestrian Way, eight miles north of Green Valley Road. Residents of Equestrian Way and Hound Hollow Road to the east were asked to evacuate.
Crews from Auburn, Cool and El Dorado Hills arrived first and reported the likely fire source as a swale north of Miner’s Valley Road.
The light breeze and steep terrain pushed the fire uphill north and east. Early responders split up, with two engine companies taking opposite flanks east of Salmon Falls Road, and the third assigned to contain the fire on the east side of the road.
“It made a pretty good run up the hill here, trying to get to Placer County,” joked O’Camb.
The Salmon Fire didn’t make it to Placer County, but some Placer County firefighters came to it.
A crew from El Dorado County Fire Station 72 in Cool arrived to find the fire building momentum, heading toward Equestrian Way and igniting trees and shooting flames higher than 100 feet in the air. They engaged the fire’s left flank.
El Dorado Hills Engineer Paramedic Dan Nelson and his crew from Station 84 arrived moments later. Their job was to keep the fire from jumping west across Salmon Falls Road, using only the water they brought.
“That’s the brutal thing about fighting fire down here,” said Nelson. “There’s no water.”
Sure enough, Engine 84’s tank went dry with the fire still pushing at the edge of the road.
Cal Fire Apparatus Engineer Phil Bucolo and his crew from Placer County Station 10 in Auburn rolled up just as Engine 84 retreated to refill from a nearby pool.
“We held it on the road for a while after they left, but it jumped on us,” said Bucolo, whose crew proceeded to chase the now-running fire with a “progressive hose lay” nearly 1,000 feet up the steep slope.
His crew held the burn to an estimated four acres west of the road.
An hour-and-a-half later Bucolo and his crew were resting and hydrating on Salmon Falls Road, monitoring flareups, their helmets and goggles splattered with the bright orange fire retardant that fire officials credited with arresting the Salmon Fire before it got any larger.
Pointing to the steep, brushy hillside, Bucolo said, “You can’t mobile attack in this stuff,” referring to the wildland firefighting practice of slow-cruising the fire line in an engine, the crew attacking the fire with engine-mounted hoses, a preferred tactic in flatter terrain.
But the American River canyons are “too steep and too hot,” he said.
He described the fire as “knee-high, moving about two miles an hour … fast but manageable.”
Conditions in Placer County are worse this year, he said. “We’ve been working in chest high fires moving twice as fast over in Lincoln lately.”
A clear case of the grass being browner on the other side of the river.
O’Camb credited “a huge effort” by surrounding fire agencies, including a dozen or more engine companies, air tankers, bull dozers and hand crews.
By 4:30 p.m. the Salmon Fire was surrounded on all sides, with Cal Fire helicopters dropping water on flareups while air tankers painted the hillsides above the fire lines orange to prevent jumping.
The CHP began letting residents walk in from Miner Valley Road.
Steve Viani lives on Equestrian Way, a half mile northeast and uphill of Miners Valley Road. He let out a yip when he spotted his home intact across a blackened field.
He credited his workers “Felix and Juan” for saving the house and his horses. They live nearby and rushed over to wet everything down and move the horses to safety when they heard about the fire. Viani also gave the horses credit for creating their own defensible space.
O’Camb said several homes in the path of the fire would have been destroyed without good defensible space.
Besides El Dorado Hills and Cal Fire, crews from El Dorado County Fire, Diamond Springs/El Dorado, Georgetown, Cameron Park, the U.S Forest Service and the Pine Grove Conservation Camp responded. Officials on the scene estimated that more than 100 firefighters were on site.
By Thursday morning Cal Fire officials reported the Salmon Fire as 100 percent contained at 108 acres.