Drought-fueled fires keep Stanislaus crews busy

etracy@modbee.comMay 30, 2014 

Summer is weeks away, but firefighters around the county are battling numerous drought-fueled blazes every week.

The Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District, with the help of multiple allied fire agencies, responded to several large vegetation fires Thursday and Friday.

Crews battled a 2-acre vegetation fire south of Oakdale on Friday morning. The fire started about 8 a.m. at Albers and Rice roads, Capt. Buck Condit said.

Immediately after finishing mop-up on that fire, crews were dispatched to a blaze along the Tuolumne River southwest of Empire.

Condit said the 1.5-acre fire required a lot of manpower because of the terrain and thick brush along the river. Smaller fire vehicles called brush rigs, equipped for off-road driving, are used to get to fires on rough terrain, but they must be refilled by larger fire engines and water tenders waiting on the nearest roads.

The cause of the river-bottom fire is under investigation, but Condit said firefighters found a homeless encampment in the area with a fire pit. He said it appears the illegal campfire got out of control and someone unsuccessfully tried to keep it from spreading by pouring dirt on it.

On Thursday night, a large vegetation fire south of Hickman spread to several large, unoccupied chicken houses.

The fire on Montpelier Road, north of Whitmore Avenue, started about 6:15 p.m. Firefighters from Stanislaus Consolidated upgraded the response to the blaze while driving to the scene when they noticed the color change in the column of smoke, which indicated a structure was burning.

The fire also threatened a nearby home, but firefighters prevented it from spreading, Condit said.

The fire destroyed three of the chicken houses and damaged another of the structures, which Condit said are about 45 feet wide and 400 feet long. It also burned about 2 acres of vegetation.

Stanislaus Consolidated received assistance on the three fires from agencies including Modesto Regional Fire Authority, Denair Fire District, Keyes Fire District, Turlock Rural Fire, Ceres Fire Department, Hughson Fire Protection District and Burbank-Paradise Fire District.

The Merced County Fire Department also battled a major house fire Friday morning in Winton and a large hay fire late Thursday in Hilmar.

The fire in Hilmar caused about $500,000 in damage, firefighters reported.

More than 1,600 tons of hay burned in the blaze. The cause still was undetermined Friday and it was too early to know whether wet hay combustion, a common cause of many hay fires, was a factor.

In Mariposa County on Friday, crews had the Hunters fire 95 percent contained, according to an evening update by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The number of acres burned was kept to 677, and full containment is still expected by Monday.

More than 600 firefighters remained on the scene, doing mop-up and fire-suppression repair. The Stanislaus County strike team that went to the fire returned home Friday.

The Merced Sun-Star’s Rob Parsons contributed to this report.

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