Wildfire near Napa Valley continues to spread; blaze breaks out near Lake Tahoe

Firetrucks make their way past flames from the Wragg fire near Putah Creek off Highway 128 west of Winters on Wednesday.

Firetrucks make their way past flames from the Wragg fire near Putah Creek off Highway 128 west of Winters on Wednesday.

(Jose Luis Villegas / The Sacramento Bee)

Firefighters in Northern California were battling two fast-moving brush fires Thursday as flames raced through terrain made combustible by four years of drought.

Officials fear the blazes could be a taste of what the region can expect through the summer, part of a larger weather pattern marked by fitful extremes.

In another example of El Niño’s impact, a band of thunderstorms lashed Yosemite National Park, triggering mud- and rockslides on Highway 140, which remained closed Thursday.

Yet the precipitation that drenched the Sierra was nowhere near the Wragg fire, which ignited Wednesday afternoon near the southern part of Lake Berryessa. The fire is named after a canyon in the burn area, located about 15 miles northeast of wine country in the Napa Valley.

By Thursday night, the fire had spread to 6,900 acres and was 15% contained, said Amy Head, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Steep, rugged canyons have challenged the more than 1,300 firefighters deployed to battle the blaze, which also destroyed an outbuilding and a pop-up tent trailer, she said.

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“Crews are having to hike way into there, and we’ve had to shuttle them in, in some cases by helicopter,” Head said. “It’s not like we’ve had fire engines driving right into where the fire’s at.”

Officials initially said the fire was sparked by a vehicle collision. The exact cause remains under investigation, but the fire’s swift spread underscored how withered the brushland has become.

“It’s been dry as a bone,” said Ralph Hux, 42, manager of a pizzeria a few miles from the burn area. Hux asaid he lready had overnight bags packed with family photos and other keepsakes -- just in case.

Dozens of residents in Cold Canyon, Mix Canyon and Quail Ridge were ordered to evacuate. The area is remote -- no subdivisions there -- with several large properties that have horses and cattle.

Ranchers scrambled to haul animals away from the threat of flames. Bryan Campbell, whose family owns a ranch in Vacaville, said it took about an hour to get all 85 of their horses into trailers. Flames had come to within 500 feet of their property by the time they fled their home, he said.

“We had to fit 13 horses in a 24-foot trailer. They were a little packed in there,” said Campbell, 32. “As long as they were able to stand, they were good.”

On Thursday, less severe winds helped crews slow the forward spread of flames, and residents in the Golden Bear community were allowed to return home. Officials hoped an increase in humidity overnight would help firefighters gain the upper hand. Parts of Highway 128 near the southern rim of Lake Berryessa remained closed, officials said.

Meanwhile, about 120 miles east near Lake Tahoe, firefighters were battling a 100-acre brush fire in the Eldorado National Forest.

The fire, which remained 5% contained as night fell Thursday, forced the California Highway Patrol to close Highway 50 between Sly Park Road and Meyers, cutting off a major route between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.

Nearly 200 firefighters were assigned to the blaze, which tore through timber and steep canyons and was burning in a northerly direction toward the burn area of 2013’s Kyburz fire, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered for those near Whitehall to the Sand Flat campground, and the American Red Cross set up an evacuation center in Pollock Pines.

As firefighters battled flames, those in Yosemite National Park were dealing with debris from the mud- and rockslide that forced the closure of Highway 140 leading to the park’s western edge. The road is one of the three main routes to the park from the west; the other two remained open.

“We don’t typically get a lot of rain over the summer, but over the last few weeks we’ve had several good-sized rainstorms,” park spokeswoman Jodi Bailey said. “Some of these are heavier than our typical afternoon thunderstorm.”

Staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.

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