Stanislaus County firefighters get scare at Butte fire

Smoke from the Butte fire moves into Modesto from the east near Lookout Drive on Friday morning.
Smoke from the Butte fire moves into Modesto from the east near Lookout Drive on Friday morning. jlee@modbee.com

A wildfire burning 50 miles away was having plenty of impact on the Modesto area Friday:

▪ Firefighters from Stanislaus County, deployed to help fight the blaze, found themselves in a defensive mode as the fire ran at them.

▪ Smoke covered the skies, delivering a significant hit to air quality already damaged by an extended heat wave.

▪ Several high school football games involving local teams were moved or canceled.

Encroaching smoke from the Butte fire, which has burned more than 50,000 acres in Amador and Calaveras counties since Wednesday afternoon, combined with the final day of an extended heat wave to bring deteriorated air quality to the Northern San Joaquin Valley. Earlier this week, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District issued an air alert for Friday even before the start of the fire.

The fire was 10 percent contained as of Friday afternoon and more than 6,000 structures were threatened, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported.

A strike team leader from the Modesto Fire Department headed a team with Office of Emergency Services engines staffed by firefighters from Modesto, Stanislaus Consolidated and West Stanislaus Fire District.

The Fire Department also provided the strike team leader for structure protection engines staffed by Modesto, Burbank-Paradise Fire District and Turlock Fire Department. They were joined by firefighters from El Dorado and Alpine counties.

On Thursday afternoon, Modesto and Stanislaus Consolidated crews serving as part of a strike team “were involved in structure defense and the fire made a significant run at them, very erratic fire behavior,” Modesto Fire Chief Sean Slamon said Friday. They were forced to take refuge behind a house and other structures, he said.

“A couple of fire engines suffered heat damage but the most important thing is that the crews are safe,” Slamon said. From what he’s heard – he hasn’t yet received photos – the damage was mainly cosmetic and the engines remain in service. A Stanislaus Consolidated battalion chief said one of that department’s rigs had some bubbled paint, melted plastic trim and melted hose but was fully functioning.

The firefighters did not have to deploy their personal fire shelters, Slamon added; the structures provided enough refuge. “This is a very trying time for that area and we’re doing everything we can to keep those communities safe,” the chief said.

The fire has left a thin layer of ash across parts of Tuolumne County, and Friday morning, Sonora High School announced that its football game with Hilmar would be moved from the foothills to Hilmar High. Other games to the south were canceled due to concerns stemming from the Rough fire in Fresno County.

Firefighters might get a break from the weather starting Saturday, when temperatures are expected to drop from the previous days. Highs of 97 and 95 are predicted for Saturday and Sunday, respectively. Monday should drop a few more degrees and the high for Tuesday is expected to be 84.