‘Never witnessed anything like this’: Bennett Fire scares Grass Valley residents, but quick response by authorities lauded for averting larger disaster (VIDEO) | TheUnion.com

‘Never witnessed anything like this’: Bennett Fire scares Grass Valley residents, but quick response by authorities lauded for averting larger disaster (VIDEO)

Firefighters were busy working the blackened areas of the Bennett Fire Thursday afternoon, dousing hotspots in the vegetation. The fire’s containment was at 73% Thursday morning.
Photo: Elias Funez

For Beach Hut Deli manager Kiana Spillner, the recent scourge of wildfires such as the Caldor, Dixie, and Bear River fires have seemed devastating but distant disasters, something to keep an eye on in the news.

That was until Wednesday.

For the first time in her life, Spillner had to evacuate Wednesday afternoon after the rapid spread of the Bennett Fire forced thousands of residents, including people in dozens of businesses such as Beach Hut Deli, to flee for safety.

“The Bear River fire wasn’t as frightening because it was further away, but going outside and seeing this one within just a couple miles of us was very frightening…I’ve never witnessed anything like this, and all I had to do was walk out back to see it,” she said.

Plastic fence siding is seen half melted behind a business along Whispering Pines Lane on Thursday.
Photo: Elias Funez

All evacuation orders had been lifted by Thursday morning, with the fire having burned about 60 acres. Authorities at 7 a.m. Thursday reported containment at 73%, after a vigorous effort by firefighters Wednesday evening brought the blaze largely under control.

Nonetheless, the blaze’s rapid spread and relative proximity to the city’s highly populated areas was enough to strain the nerves of many evacuees, some of whom had to leave homes or businesses behind when they left.

By 6 p.m. Wednesday, over 7,000 people had been either ordered to evacuate or been given evacuation or shelter-in place advisories as a result of the Bennett Fire, according to Andrew Trygg, a spokesperson for the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office.

A row of vehicles succumbed to the flames of the Bennett Fire Wednesday afternoon off Whispering Pines Lane in Grass Valley.
Photo: Elias Funez


One such resident was Ethan Coleman, who lives close to the fire’s origin area near Whispering Pines and Bennett Road. Like Spillner, Coleman said it was his first time being ordered to evacuate, and admits that he thought about whether he’d have a home to return to when his family had to pack up and leave Wednesday.

“Yeah, it was scary thinking about the home,” Coleman said. “I was at work when somebody called and told me that it was right over there, so I came back…we started wetting things down on the property at first to try and slow this thing, and then we realized that that wasn’t gonna help, so we packed up and left.”

A spirited push by responding fire departments is being credited for stopping the fire swiftly and potentially saving hundreds of residences such as Coleman’s.

Firefighters work to put out smoldering spots of the Bennett Fire Thursday while others worked to fell large, burned trees that could pose a danger if left standing.
Photo: Elias Funez

Units responded from numerous agencies to combat the blaze, including Cal Fire’s Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit, the Grass Valley/Nevada City Fire Department, Penn Valley Fire, Rough and Ready Fire, and Ophir Hill Fire, among others. A sustained aerial attack on the blaze by Cal Fire airplanes deploying fuel retardant also assisted ground efforts, and within just a couple of hours, the Bennett Fire had gone from zero percent containment to 60% containment by 6 p.m. Wednesday.

“They made quick, amazing progress,” Trygg said of the firefighter’s response.

“We’ve become really good at responding to these things…the response from personnel in all departments was quick and overwhelming,” said Paul Cummings, program manager of the county’s Office of Emergency Services, in comments made at a Thursday meeting of the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County.

John Gimroth, owner of Reliable Auto Glass on Idaho Maryland Road, said that sheriff’s deputies responded swiftly as the blaze began to spread and told his employees that they were in an evacuation zone and should leave immediately.

With the fire ultimately coming within 30 yards of his business, Gimroth says he’s just grateful everything was intact when he returned the following day.

“I’m just glad I had insurance, to be honest,” he said with a laugh. “I’m happy everybody was got out of here OK. It was very stressful waiting to see what was gonna happen, but we’re back in operation today and we’re all good, so I’m thankful.”

Stephen Wyer is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at swyer@theunion.com

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