Crews hold fire line |

Crews hold fire line

Dave Moller
and Laura Brown
Staff Writers

WASHINGTON – Residents were voluntarily evacuating from this village Tuesday as the Scotchman Fire one mile to the east threatened vacation homes, but no permanent residences.

Smoke from the blaze, numerous others in the region and hundreds of others in California forced people indoors all over Nevada County and offered the prospect of more smoky days this week.

“The town is under voluntary evacuation. We’re only allowing residents in,” from Highway 20 to Washington Road, said Rene McCormick, the Scotchman Fire incident commander. She is part of a special U.S. Forest Service team handling the Yuba River Complex of fires in the area, which was holding at 2,035 acres.

“Some townsfolk have left on their own. We’re hoping everyone else is packed and ready to go if we don’t hold (the fire) on the Scotchman drainage,” McCormick said. “However, most of the fire is to the east and away from the community at this time.”

“We’re choking,” said Sue DeCourte, owner of the Washington Hotel and Cafe. “People with breathing problems are trying to find a place to go.”

The Scotchman Fire had grown to almost 600 acres by late Tuesday. Adding to the poor air quality and local anxiety was the Fall Fire near Bowman Lake, holding at an estimated at 1,300 acres late Tuesday; the 25 Fire near Camptonville at around 200 acres; and the Celina Fire near Graniteville at 135 acres, according to Greg Cleveland of the U.S. Forest Service and Kathy Van Zuuk of Tahoe National Forest.

On Tuesday, the Scotchman Fire threatened about 10 vacation homes east of town, Washington Fire and Rescue member Chuck Krausch said.

“The only ones in real danger are the homes upriver (on the South Fork Yuba River), mostly vacation homes,” Krausch said. “It’s running east up the river. No one’s in danger here right now.”

Still, protecting Washington was the day’s top priority.

“That’s where we have the most residences in proximity to the fires,” Cleveland said.

Fire experts said the smoke could linger in western Nevada County for several days, and the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District has urged residents to stay indoors until it clears.

Steep terrain, but good access

The Scotchman Fire was 5 percent contained late Tuesday.

“We are making progress right now, with hand crews and engine crews, making a fire line on the Scotchman Creek drainage” just outside Washington, McCormick said.

“We have active fire down to the Yuba River, but it’s holding,” McCormick added. “It’s very steep terrain, and we’re having a difficult time finding safe areas for (firefighters) to work.”

Crews also were having difficulty seeing what the fire was doing and where, because there was little flame, few if any crown fires and a lot of underburn – just lots of smoke.

Crown fires have been isolated because tree tops are healthy and still contain moisture, said Drew Smith, a fire behavior analyst at the fire complex command center at the Nevada County Fairgrounds.

Stable atmospheric conditions and relatively good access to the fire by logging roads are elements working in firefighters’ favor, Smith said.

Resource competition

The high number of fires throughout the north state has kept helicopters and other resources in short supply, said John Steadman, air support group supervisor at the command center.

Elsewhere in the region, a fire of 1,000 acres is burning in the American River Canyon in Placer County, and another fire is scorching 3,300 acres near Quincy in Plumas County – among an estimated 800 fires that were sparked by lightning Saturday and Sunday.

“We’re competing for resources. We’re slowly getting things,” Steadman said.

A fire the size of the Yuba River Complex should have three large helicopters for dropping water; three medium helicopters for dropping water and cargo; and two light helicopters for sending planning and operation leaders to assess the fire, Steadman said.

Instead, fire crews have access to two local air tankers, one air attack platform for surveying the landscape and one helicopter.

“The fires are difficult because they’re spread out,” Cleveland added from the command center.

In addition, low visibility in the smoke-choked canyons hanging with unseen mining cables kept airplanes and one helicopter grounded, Steadman said.

“You can’t go in there and get tangled up and crash,” Steadman said.

To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail or call 477-4237.

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