MANTECA -- A 100-acre brush fire and its accompanying thick, gray smoke caused Highway 99 traffic to come to a standstill and led to three collisions Monday morning as dozens of firefighters battled the blaze at the Highway 99 and Highway 120 interchange.
Fire officials were investigating the cause of the fire Monday afternoon while snuffing scattered flare-ups that slowed the evening commute to and from the Bay Area.
The fire burned more than 100 acres east and west along Highway 99 between westbound Highway 120 and east of Austin Road.
Chris Haas, Manteca's interim fire chief, was on his way out of the office Monday morning when he noticed smoke billowing. He drove toward it, then called in the emergency at 10:30 a.m., he said.
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"The smoke was incredibly dense. It was gray," Haas said.
As smoke blocked drivers' visibility, the highway became a parking lot, said Adrian Quintero, spokesman with the California Highway Patrol's Stockton office. Traffic was stopped for at least 45 minutes.
When traffic was allowed to move, CHP officers guided drivers along the highways and detoured them onto northbound 99 to eastbound Yosemite Avenue to Jack Tone Road, Quintero said.
Vehicles on eastbound Highway 120 west of Highway 99 were making U-turns in the median to backtrack and find other routes. CHP officers were discouraging the move because driving over the dry grass in the median could have sparked another fire.
The fire was contained by 11:30 a.m., Haas said. Responders included about 42 firefighters from the Manteca, Ripon, Lathrop and Waterloo-Morada departments and about 10 CHP officers.
The fire started in the island between southbound Highway 99 and the offramp for westbound Highway 120, Haas said.
The high winds and dry brush helped the fire spread rapidly to the east side of Highway 99.
"This was definitely a wind- fueled fire. Winds were north-northwest," Haas said.
The fire damaged highway posts and guardrails, Quintero said. It threatened structures, including Kamps Propane station west of Highway 99.
Firefighters were guarding Kamps, but employees didn't think the fire would reach the propane tanks, said Vice President Terry Ayres.
Haas said he was thankful for the work by Manteca firefighters and surrounding agencies and that there were no injuries.
Three accidents occurred on Highway 99 as a result of the fire and traffic backup. Two collisions involved minor injuries and the third, which involved the rear-ending of a CHP car, logged only property damage, Quintero said.
Manteca's grass fire was one of 25 fires burning in Stanislaus, Merced and Madera counties Monday, said Anthony Presto, spokesman with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. The Manteca fire's smoke could be seen and smelled in Modesto, he said.
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2339.