UPDATE Turlock police say the wildfire that raged along Highway 99 burned 90 acres in the city and in the unincorporated area to the north. The fire burned through about 20 unoccupied mobile homes and five to ten abandoned buildings and storage structures. Investigators are still trying to figure out what caused the fire. They do not believe it was started by a van crash on Highway 99 that left two people dead. The crash happened within minutes of the start of the fire.
TURLOCK -- A fatal van accident and a grass fire shut down Highway 99 for more than four hours Thursday, leaving hundreds of commuters stranded and emergency responders running between police, fire and medical calls into the early evening.
The chaos typified events across Stanislaus County, where 200 firefighters battled a wind-swept 100-acre wildfire near Knights Ferry, which closed a portion of Highway 108-120 for four hours, and emergency crews tended to about 25 other fires reported in the county.
On Highway 99, just after 2 p.m., a van crashed into a guardrail in the northbound lane near the Keyes Road exit. About a mile south, and minutes before, a grass fire started, threatening homes and businesses in and around the Monte Vista Crossings shopping area.
The fire destroyed many of the 30 vacant mobile homes in a storage yard on Taylor Road. About 100 people were evacuated from nearby businesses because of the flames, including the Best Western Orchard Inn on Taylor Road, El Rosal restaurant at Monte Vista Crossings shopping center and Suburban Propane on Golden State Boulevard.
While CHP and Turlock police tended to the van and a dozen fire agencies from across the county wrestled with the flames, ambulances responded to a domino effect of medical calls including:
"Everything fell apart all at once," said CHP spokesman Tom Killian.
Witnesses told the CHP the van, which was carrying "eight or nine" people, was traveling northbound in the middle lane on Highway 99 "at a high rate of speed, 80 to 90 miles per hour," CHP officer Thomas Gowin said.
It moved to the left lane just as, according to a witness, an armored truck moved from the middle to left-hand lane, causing the van driver to slam on the brakes and sending the vehicle into a spin and into a guardrail, Gowin said.
Three people were ejected, and a woman died on the scene. A man who was seriously injured and flown by helicopter to Memorial Medical Center died about two hours later. The California Highway Patrol did not release the names of the victims or occupants, all from San Leandro.
The fire started north of Taylor Road. It was bordered to the south at Monte Vista Crossings, west to the railroad tracks west of Highway 99, and east to the apartment complex next to Pitman High School.
A dozen agencies, led by Turlock City Fire, brought it under control about 5:30 p.m. Still, by 6:30, as firefighters were leaving the storage yard, rows and rows of mobile homes still were smoking, burned down to the blocks.
Toby Helton and Joseph Culwell were in their house, which sits in the middle of the storage yard, when they saw the flames.
"You couldn't even see outside," Helton said. "It was all smoke."
Flames also threatened Suburban Propane on Golden State Boulevard, along with several other businesses.
"The sales team watched it burn until it got close, then locked the doors and ran," said Randy Woods, owner of Woods Furniture. The flames came within feet of his Taylor Road store.
At one point, Highway 99 was closed from the Keyes Road exit to the West Main Street exit. More than 60 public safety workers, city workers and Caltrans employees mobilized to keep cars off that four miles of highway.
Some commuters spent upward of three hours in their vehicles, officials said. A caller to The Bee who said she got on the freeway in Modesto at 4:25 p.m. was inching southbound at Keyes more than two hours later.
Side streets in central Turlock were clogged as drivers fled Highway 99 and the fire's smoke. Drivers attempted to get to Modesto and back on Highway 99 by weaving through Santa Fe Avenue, Hatch Road or Yosemite Boulevard, driving through Empire and Hughson.
Meanwhile, about two hours earlier, strong wind gusts pushed another grass fire near Knights Ferry and across heavily trafficked Highway 1080-120 as flames destroyed two vacant structures, burned 100 acres of rural land, forced the evacuation of several homes and detoured traffic for about four hours between Knights Ferry and Oakdale.
No injuries were reported in the fire just west of the historic old town.
Firefighters spent most of Thursday scrambling across Stanislaus County, dealing with about two dozen vegetation fires fueled by dry grass and propelled by strong wind, said Division Chief Bill Houk of the Stanislaus County Office of Emergency Services.
He said the fire started near the 17000 block of Frymire Road when winds blew a willow tree onto a power line that fell and sparked the blaze.
The flames quickly engulfed a house and just behind it a mobile home, but both were vacant, Houk said.
Wind gusts of about 35 mph moved the flames south, down a steep embankment to the Stanislaus River before the blaze jumped the water onto another steep embankment on the north side of the river.
Once the flames reached the top of the embankment, the wind pushed the flames across Highway 108-120.
Firefighters caught up to the flames south of the highway before they moved farther south, but Houk said the winds continued to fan the flames in spot fires on both sides of the river.
"The wind is just killing us," Houk said. "This wouldn't have spread too fast if the winds weren't as strong."
Smoke forced the closure of the highway between Knights Ferry and Orange Blossom Road outside Oakdale. Traffic was diverted onto Orange Blossom, which looped around the burning area.
Houk said several ranch houses near the start of the fire and the river were evacuated as a precaution.
Denise Ray, 48, was at work in Modesto when relatives called to tell her that her house and others along the river were being evacuated. Her husband was in Salida with their two sons for their piano lesson, but she hurried back to the burning area anyway.
Her house was once her greatgrandmother's home, which was built about 115 years ago. It sits on the south side of the river.
"I felt a little bit better when I saw the (emergency) lights from one of the fire trucks near my home," Ray said as she waited nervously at the command post near Frymire and Cemetery roads. "That meant they were there to protect my house."
The homes of her aunt and her mother, that also sit along the river, were evacuated as well.
Cal Fire used two air tankers and a helicopter to fight the blaze.
By about 6:30 p.m., officials said the fire was under control and the highway was reopened. Cal Fire crews remained at the site, hoping to achieve full containment overnight.
Wind wreaks havoc
The wind was a major factor in dozens of other grassfires throughout the region Thursday. Houk said recent dry weather and low humidity were the other factors that allowed the fires to get out of control Thursday.
In response to a series of grass fires Thursday morning, county officials formed a quick response task force of three fire engines, said deputy Royjindar Singh, an Office of Emergency Services spokesman.
The task force was centrally stationed in the Modesto area to respond quickly to any vegetation fire in the county with three engines. Singh said the task force was handling a fire in Ceres before it was deployed to the Knights Ferry blaze.
He said the task force was busy near Knights Ferry when the fire started near Turlock's Taylor Road.
Houk said the first fire engine assigned to tackle the blaze near Turlock was from a fire agency in Patterson, because everyone else was handling response calls.
"There were about three to four major incidents all around the same time," Houk said.
Gusts were recorded as high as 39 mph in Modesto. Gusts were recorded as high as 39 mph in Modesto.
Those winds helped drive a 20-acre grass fire at Mitchell Road and Highway 99. Ceres fire Battalion Chief Bryan Hunt said the call came in about 11 a.m. and crews left the scene about 1:45 p.m.
"The wind took a little road-side grass fire that usually would take one engine to handle and turned it into an eight- engine, two-hour grass fire," Hunt said.
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Michael R. Shea can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2391.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.