LAKE BERRYESSA — Firefighters on Sunday continued to battle a major fire in the area of the Monticello Dam, which closed Highway 128 and forced the evacuation of a housing subdivision.
The Monticello Fire covered 6,488 acres as of 7 p.m. Sunday and remained 30 percent contained. The area, announced as 7,000 acres Saturday night, was revised downward after the return of daylight permitted more accurate surveying, CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.
Sunday evening, CalFire lifted an evacuation order it had declared for the Golden Bear Estates and other homes along Highway 128.
CalFire said nearly 1,400 personnel were on scene, but unfavorable weather and rugged conditions were making progress slow.
The fire broke out the evening of July Fourth and quickly spread to become the largest of more than a dozen active fires in the state, eclipsing the Butts Canyon Fire at the Napa-Lake County line, which had scorched about 4,300 acres.
There was no immediate word from CalFire on the cause of the Monticello Fire.
Fire crews Sunday appeared to check any major breakouts of the blaze, despite steep terrain and a heat spike that sent high temperatures near 100 degrees. However, a forecast of triple-digit temperatures and brisk winds Monday keeps alive the risk of the fire regaining strength, particularly with vegetation parched by more than a year of drought, according to Berlant.
“This warming trend of the last several days definitely concerns us,” he said Sunday evening, pointing to the fire zone’s steeper and harder-to-reach northern edge as the area of greatest concern. “This fire took off not because of hot weather but because of extreme dryness. The Butts Fire, when it started (Tuesday), there was only light wind and the temperature was only about 90 degrees, but it still expanded at an explosive rate. As the temperature goes up 10 degrees and winds pick up, this fire has the potential to pick up speed even more.”
At least one injury Sunday was connected to the firefighting effort. At 1:20 p.m., a bulldozer helping to build a fire control line north of Highway 128 and east of Monticello Dam overturned on sloping terrain, Berlant said. The bulldozer operator, whose name was not released, was hoisted out of the vehicle by a CalFire helicopter, then flown by another helicopter to Vacaville Medical Center for evaluation.
The California Highway Patrol set up roadblocks on Highway 128 from the Highway 121 intersection east to Pleasants Valley Road west of Winters. Despite the closure, some visitors were being allowed into the restricted zone as far as Monticello Dam, and business appeared surprisingly brisk at the Pleasure Cove Marina farther west.
At the entrance gate, Nancy Baylor-Jimenez kept busy collecting fees from visitors — mostly those renting boats on site for the day — many of whom appeared unperturbed by the air tankers flying overhead to dip their baskets into the lake, then head east to help douse the blaze. With authorities granting somewhat easier access to Lake Berryessa from the west, business at Pleasure Cove had bounced back somewhat from a day earlier, she said.
“Management told us to send boaters to Steele Canyon (instead) because of the evacuation order” on Saturday, said Baylor-Jimenez. “Some people were disappointed; we had to be safe, but some people don’t see it that way.”
On a cabin porch overlooking the marina, nearly two dozen of Apryl Bonanno’s family and friends from the East Bay sunned themselves and made small talk, having decided to spend the full weekend there despite the smoke drifting their way. “We know the lake, and we knew it wouldn’t get close to us,” she said.
Closer to the fire scene, however, increasingly smoky and sticky air dissuaded tourists from advancing farther. At noon, only one car and a motorcycle occupied the normally full parking lot in front of the Markley Cove marina and convenience store.
“It’s dead. We’ve had one boat launch — all day — and we had two more launches yesterday,” said Paola Vallejo, a cashier, comparing the virtually off-season atmosphere to the more than 100 who launched on the Fourth of July.
East of the dam, the Canyon Creek Resort appeared well populated with RVs and tents for a holiday weekend — until one noticed the deserted lounge with empty lunch tables, darkened television and vacant game room. The few people milling about the motor homes were not weekend vacationers but firefighters, some of them carefully negotiating a downslope from charred ground to their vehicles below.
A few civilian vehicles eventually pulled up in front of the resort clubhouse, but not to spend the night.
“On Friday we just dropped our stuff and ran,” Matt Yoder said, shortly after driving back to Canyon Creek from his Vacaville home, two days after he and other campers evacuated the resort. “We just came here to get our stuff, our most valuable stuff, like my brother’s ashes; it’s the one-year anniversary today.”
At the Butts Canyon Fire, meanwhile, firefighters said they had the blaze 80 percent contained by Sunday morning and all evacuation orders had been lifted. Two houses and seven outbuildings burned in the fire, but firefighters managed to protect the Berryessa Estates neighborhood and residents were allowed to return home Thursday.
That fire broke out along Butts Canyon Road on Tuesday, possibly sparked by a piece of landscaping equipment in use in the area.
Additional information on the fires is available cat CalFire’s website: cdfdata.fire.ca.gov/incidents.