Robbers Fire near Foresthill grows to 1,400 acres Saturday

Some Auburn events cancelled due to fire
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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UPDATE 10:12 A.M. JULY 14- Bolstered by hundreds of firefighters converging on the Robbers Fire from around the state, the effort to stop the stubborn blaze between Foresthill and Colfax moved into a weekend that promised more tough battles.

As the number of rural Foresthill and Iowa Hill-area residents evacuated from their mountain homes rose to 350, Cal Fire was warning that the fire was far from being extinguished and the danger of a breakout remained very much alive in the walls of flame and columns of smoke firefighters were confronting.

Cal Fire information officer Daniel Berlant said that additional personnel have been added to the attack because of the threat of disaster, as gusting, fickle winds blow flames and embers around.

"There is so much potential for growth," Berlant said. "We want to ensure there are plenty of resources here if the fire picks up."

The bolstered firefighter numbers are remaining in the area through the weekend and into next week, he said.

"They'll be here until it's contained," Berlant said. "We have major challenges because of difficult access and steep rock in the canyons."

Part of the work this weekend will include bulldozing lines of defense between mountain communities and the fire, Berlant said.

Auburn's Gold Country Fairgrounds was being taken over by an influx of firefighters and equipment from across the state. The fair is being used as a staging area for the escalated battle to corral the spreading Robbers Fire.

Cal Fire officials reported Friday morning that the fire's footprint - covering densely forested canyon land between Colfax and Foresthill - grew more than five times in size in 24 hours - from 220 acres to 1,157 acres. That number grew to 1,300 acres Friday night and 1,427 acres Saturday morning and 20 percent contained.

The fight to keep the fire in check was expanded to include steep terrain on the eastern side of Shirttail Creek. The fire jumped the creek late Thursday and started spreading upward toward rural residences tucked into the canyon off Yankee Jims Road.

The ranks of firefighters also grew overnight, with 1,963 personnel part of the small army involved in fighting the blaze - up from 1,000 on Thursday.

The influx of firefighters was confirmed Friday by the Office of Gov. Jerry Brown, which issued a statement saying additional state resources had been freed to fight the Robbers Fire, including five specially equipped Black Hawk helicopters and California National Guard personnel.

Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said that the state has had a brief reprieve from major fires the last two years.

"But the exceptionally dry winter has set the state for a more active fire season this year and we're seeing fire activity now that we would typically not see until late August," Pimlott said.

As if to underscore that concern locally, small fires broke out late Thursday in Newcastle, Penryn and Cool, near Auburn, as the Robbers Fire consumed more forested acreage in the afternoon heat.

Fire trucks from as far away as Los Angeles County were gassing up at the Gold Country Fairgrounds and heading up Interstate 80 to aid in containing a fire that had forced evacuations along Yankee Jims Canyon and Shirttail Canyon areas as well as parts of Iowa Hill.

At the Red Cross emergency evacuation center set up at the Foresthill Memorial Hall, Shawn and Kirsten Payne peered worriedly Friday at a map of the fire, which they saw had spread up the canyon along Yankee Jims Road.

Their Spring Garden Road neighborhood, near the top of Yankee James Road leading into Foresthill, had been evacuated late Thursday and they were searching for clues to the fire's potential path.

Kirsten Payne said they had received a telephone call at 3:40 p.m. to evacuate and they had driven away with what possessions they could bring along in their fifth wheel a little more than three hours later.

"Our daughters panicked and emptied all their drawers," Kirsten Payne said. "What do you bring?"

The family of five stayed with relatives overnight Thursday. Shawn Payne said he had stayed up until 2 a.m. on nervous energy, fearfully surfing the Web for any information on the fire.

"We've been here 13 years and this was our first evacuation," he said. "I grabbed pictures. I got the Harley. And I got the quad. We'll camp out this weekend until we can hopefully return."

Pat Burger, a Cal Fire prevention volunteer, said Friday that the goals on the third day of the Robbers Fire were to establish control of the fire and protect structures. A total of 170 structures were being threatened as of Friday night. Crews have been sent to protect those sites. Burger said none of crews were actively fighting fires at threatened structures on Friday morning.

The fire, which was first reported Wednesday afternoon, was deemed by Cal Fire to be 10 percent contained Friday night, down from 20 percent the day before.

The first firefighter injury in three days was reported Friday, when an inmate crew member was struck by a falling rock that had fallen from a slope. The firefighter was taken to hospital by ground ambulance with a broken leg at about 10:30 a.m., Berlant said. As of Saturday morning, eight injuries were reported.

David Kennedy, Red Cross emergency service coordinator, said that plans were to move the evacuation center to Foresthill High School by 7 p.m. Friday. Kennedy said that Red Cross efforts were aided by members of the Foresthill community helping their own.

In the evacuation center kitchen, Wilbur Helman, owner of Foresthill's Over Easy at The Starlight eatery, said she was voluntarily working to feed evacuees with food donated by Worton's store and the Forest House because of the good karma she was hoping to receive and pass on.

On the road to Foresthill, a hand painted sign thanked firefighters for their efforts to save the community from the fire.

Berlant said he saw a little girl arrive on the first night of the fire with hand-made cookies for displaced neighbors.

"You see little things like that," Berlant said. "This is a tight-knit community."

Click here to read about Outside events canceled, moved indoors due to Robbers Fire

See video coverage from Thursday here.

Watch initial coverage of the fire Wednesday here.

Events canceled? Let us know here.


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