Interstate 80 closes; Major traffic jams |

Interstate 80 closes; Major traffic jams

Heat, wind and dry wildland kicked Tahoe National Forest’s biggest fire of the year into high gear Monday, causing highway closures and evacuations in Nevada and Placer counties.

The blaze claimed 1,900 acres by 8 p.m. – up from 300 acres just 10 hours earlier.

Interstate 80 was closed in both directions Monday at about 1 p.m., while Highway 20 was closed from Highway 49 in Nevada City to its junction with I-80.

Interstate 80 reopened about just before midnight but not before strangling traffic for hours on the major route through the Sierras.

Traffic was snarled all over Truckee as Interstate travelers jammed other major roads in town. Old Highway 40 over Donner Summit was also reported closed to prevent travelers from taking a back route onto I-80.

“When the heat of the day picks up, fire behavior becomes more aggressive,” TNF spokeswoman Ann Westling said, noting flame heights reached 300 feet on south-facing slopes.

What’s worse, she added, is that forecasts call for hotter, drier and windier conditions today, and the fire won’t be contained for at least a week. It was 10 percent contained by Monday night.

Highway 20 was closed from Nevada City east to Interstate 80, and the interstate was closed from Auburn to the Donner Lake interchange. Escorted traffic was being arranged for both roadways.

Evacuated in Nevada County were all campgrounds and recreational areas at Lake Spalding, Marin Sierra Boys Scout Camp, Donner Mine Camp and Bowman Lake Road from Highway 20 to Fuller Lake.

Placer County residents in Yuba Gap, Snowflower Camp, Lake Valley Reservoir and Emigrant Gap in Carpenter Flat were also evacuated. Many motorists stopped at the TNF office in Nevada City for detour directions.

“Nobody likes to have their vacation interrupted, but folks have been very understanding and trying to make the best of it,” Westling said.

Evacuations inconvenienced a handful of families in Bear Valley. One resident, Paul Moan, earlier pulled his boat from Lake Spalding and parked it along Zeibright Road, where he watched smoke rise in the east and waited for permission to return home.

“No,” he wasn’t happy, he said, “but all it takes is a wind shift. Things could get ugly real fast.”

In fact, winds changed directions 180 degrees during the day – from southwesterly to northeasterly.

Moan’s family is among six that live on Zeibright Road year-around. “The biggest danger we have is a fire. It’s the only bad thing about living here, other than mosquitoes,” he said.

Earlier, Nevada County Sheriff’s Deputy Andy Burr told one boater to get off Lake Spalding, and deputies from both Nevada and Placer counties helped vacationers and residents evacuate.

Smoke was visible from dozens of miles away.

Near the frontlines, haze reduced the sun to a muted, red ball as ash fell like snow.

“It almost looks like a whole other planet,” one California Highway Patrolman said, looking to the sky above Yuba Gap.

Crews fought to keep flames from hopping north over Interstate 80 at Yuba Gap, TNF information officer Bill Baker said.

Water-hauling helicopters repeatedly put out small spot fires in a wedge of land between Highway 20 and I-80.

Firefighters also set fires to reduce fuel in the blaze’s path.

In that same area, strike teams awaited orders, and at least one bulldozer driver eagerly awaited his chance to attack the fire.

“Excitement!” Lynn Sperling of Gridley said to describe his anticipation. “I like to get busy, get in the zone!” Dane Siller, owner of Big Hill Logging in Yuba City, brought four dozers to help fire crews draw a line around part of the fire.

Two buildings were lost in the flames – a house near Yuba Gap and a storage building. A firefighter’s rolled ankle was the only reported injury, and there were no reports of heat exhaustion, according to Westling.

The fire was reported at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, and while lightning was first suspected, Westling said, officials are looking at an abandoned campfire as the possible cause.

The fire is already the forest’s largest of the season, after the Martis fire claimed about 200 acres of TNF land earlier this summer. Rainfall in the area was 43-percent of normal this year.

“We’re in a situation where it’s very hot and dry,” Westling said. “In essence, this is burning like it would be at the end of September.”

See Related Stories:

Nevada, California, Oregon battle fires

Governors, Cabinet secretaries agree to cooperate to fight fires

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