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Heroic Efforts Praised For Preventing Aero Fire From Causing More Damage

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San Andreas, CA — The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors heard first-hand reports from emergency responders who were on the ground during the early stages of the AERO Fire in Copperopolis.

It ignited shortly before 3:30 pm, one week ago today, June 17, near Rock Creek Road and Highway 4. The cause of the blaze has not been released. At a special meeting today, the supervisors unanimously ratified a local State of Emergency Declaration.

CAL Fire Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit Chief Nick Casci was on hand to provide an overview of the early stages of the fire. There was a Red Flag Fire Warning issued nearby due to the heavy winds, and they were feeling the effects of that weather that afternoon.

He said the fire was initially 30-40 acres when first located and a heavy north wind was pushing spot fires to ignite about a quarter of a mile away. Within 10 minutes it was spotting a half mile away, and soon ¾ mile away, when the aircraft was getting on the scene. Within just an hour, the fire had grown to 1,500 acres with “rapid expansion.” There had not been a fire in that area since 1994, so the conditions were ripe for growth. Due to the long-range spotting, Highway 4 would not be an option as a containment line.

Instead of directly attacking the fire, early on it was decided to back up and light backfires in strategic areas to slow the spread before it arrives near critical infrastructure.  They put in a large order for resources from across the region. CAL Fire also coordinated with the sheriff’s office to issue widespread evacuations in the Copperopolis area, impacting around 6,000 residents.

Casci says backfire operations (fighting fire with fire) were commenced on Pyle Road, Highway 4, and O’Byrnes Ferry Road. Backfires were lit around the Old Town Copperopolis, and quick efforts were made to save facilities like Copperopolis Elementary School.

At one point, the fire came across Rock Creek Road and made a hard run through several of the ranch properties.

Casci says, “No incident that expands that rapidly is going to be smooth in the first few hours. But, I would say I was really proud of all of the agencies making it as seamless as possible, given what we were dealt. We did lose three structures.  Those structures were in the Hodson Road area. I believe it was one residence and two outbuildings. And there was some of what I’d call commercial structure damage down near the old Highway 4 and Rock Creek intersection.”

Firefighters were able to successfully burn backfires and create firelines ahead of the blaze and the different lines were tied in together. By the next morning, the fire was over 5,300 acres, and officials were able to keep it within that footprint over the coming several days. Today, it is 90% contained, with full containment anticipated by this Friday.

Calaveras Undersheriff Rachelle Whiting noted that coordination with her office began within the first hour of the fire igniting and learning that it was “going to go” and not be stopped with the initial attack.

Additional officers came from outside the area to assist with evacuations and patrols.

Calaveras sheriff’s office deputies were put on 12-hour shifts.

Calaveras OES Director Erk Holt, who has been on the job for just 30 days, praised the leadership of the sheriff’s office, other Calaveras officials, and the work of CAL Fire, among others.

Shelters were set up in three different areas due to the closure of Highway 4, and at the peak, 100 evacuees were at one of the locations (Angels Camp, Valley Springs, and Stockton).

CCWD, PG&E, HHSA, Calaveras Fairgrounds, Red Cross, Public Health, CMCAA, Animal Services, other local special districts, and neighboring counties, were also praised.

Supervisors Ben Stopper and Amanda Folendorf both thanked the first responders for the great “coordination and communication.”

Supervisor Gary Tofanelli added to the emergency responders, “You saved almost everything that needed to be saved. It could have been much worse and could have destroyed the town of Copperopolis.”

Undersheriff Whiting got a laugh from the board, when she said that one thing that they “weren’t able to save was the overtime budget,” and noted that it is something the county will need to deal with.

Supervisor Martin Huberty also spoke positively about the response and asked about the potential for erosion issues in the fire area this coming winter. Holt stated that it is something that will be monitored over the next couple of years.

Board Chair Jack Garamendi concluded, “You guys really did the work. It was impressive and I’m very proud of the response to this fire from everybody.”

Today’s ratification of the local State of Emergency declaration opens up the door for potential state funding to help with response and recovery efforts.