Evacuations lifted after greater than 14,000 acres burned

Despite a wet winter and heavy snowpack, California's 2024 wildfire season began over the weekend with the state's largest fire of the 12 months, the Corral Fire south of Tracy and east of Livermore.

The fire broke out Saturday afternoon and raged uncontrolled into Sunday, injuring two firefighters, requiring evacuations, destroying a house and turning vast swathes of the once golden rolling hills into blackened wastelands.

According to Cal Fire statistics, the Corral Fire burned 14,000 acres in 24 hours, greater than the full area burned by the 1,253 wildfires in California to date this 12 months. The fire was 50% contained by Sunday evening, the agency said.

“We have a very, very abundant grass crop this year, and that is what led to the fire,” Cal Fire Captain Robert Foxworthy said Sunday afternoon.

Lush grasses that thrived on winter rains are actually dead or dying and drying out across the state. Areas just like the East Bay Hills are especially in danger when winds pick up, as they did Saturday when the hearth broke out around 2:30 p.m. and winds of as much as 40 mph and even stronger gusts spread the hearth to almost 10,000 acres in a matter of hours, Foxworthy said.

Those drying grasses are prone to result in “an increase in grass fires” in the approaching weeks, Craig Clements, a professor at San Jose State University and director of the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center, said this week. Temperatures are expected to rise sharply within the region starting Tuesday. Highs of 35 degrees are expected in Concord on Tuesday, 32 degrees in San Jose and 28 degrees in Oakland, in response to the National Weather Service. In many parts of the Bay Area, the mercury is predicted to proceed to rise on Wednesday before turning cooler again on Thursday.

The Corral Fire broke out only a day after Cal Fire announced Friday that it will suspend permits to burn debris outdoors at private homes in Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa and western San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties starting Saturday, citing “abundant” grass dried out by wind and rising temperatures.

Two firefighters from the Alameda County Fire Department were injured while fighting the hearth. “They were
to local hospitals where they are being treated and evaluated,” the department said in a press release Sunday afternoon. A Cal Fire spokesman said the firefighters were in stable condition and recovering.

The cause of the fire was still under investigation on Sunday afternoon, Cal Fire said. The Alameda County Fire Department said on Sunday that it had conducted a controlled burn in the fire area on Friday, but that it had been extinguished by 3 p.m. The fire department sees no connection between this operation and the Corral Fire.

As of Sunday evening, only one building had been damaged; one house was considered a total loss, Cal Fire said.

An evacuation order was in place for 200 homes in the Tracy area, which was lifted at 6 p.m. Sunday and replaced with an evacuation warning. It is unclear how many residents fled. Residents in the warning area were urged Sunday evening to remain vigilant and prepare for a change in the situation.

Cal Fire has asked California residents to remove all dead or dying vegetation within 100 feet of homes.

On Saturday, firefighters battled sustained winds of 30 to 40 mph and gusts of up to 60 mph and “were not even able to conduct a direct attack,” said Cal Fire spokeswoman Cecile Juliette.

“With such strong winds, a grass fire spreads very quickly,” said Juliette. Lighter winds on Sunday allowed firefighters to make great progress, she said.

A fire this big in early June should be an “eye-opener” for the public, Juliette said. “Usually it's only in July that the fire really picks up speed and reaches this size,” she said.

The fire department's greatest concern was the new Tracy Hills residential area, which previously only had a handful of homes, and the area around the Tracy Golf & County Club, where the house was destroyed.

The house, which was mostly burned to the ground, was set against a backdrop of blackened hills, among houses that appeared to be untouched by the fire. Two charred palm trees stood at the entrance to the driveway of the destroyed house, which contained several burned-out cars. Melted fences lined the property line.

The cause of the fire was still under investigation on Sunday afternoon, Cal Fire said. The Alameda County Fire Department said on Sunday that it had conducted a controlled burn in the fire area on Friday, but that it had been extinguished by 3 p.m. The fire department sees no connection between this operation and the Corral Fire.

South of Tracy, a fire crew from Santa Cruz, assisted by firefighters from a state prison, had been battling the fire since about 6 a.m. By Sunday afternoon, they were already spraying water on the smoldering embers to keep the flames away from the Tracy Hills residential area.

“We were just busy cleaning up here and making sure that any risk of the fire reigniting or spreading here was eliminated,” said Cal Fire Captain Skylar Merritt.

After I-580 was closed overnight and most of the morning from I-205 to I-5, the left lane of eastbound 580 reopened before noon, but the right lane remained closed from Corral Hollow Road to South Bird Road in San Joaquin County until Sunday afternoon. The westbound lanes reopened Sunday morning, Caltrans said. By 6 p.m. Sunday, all eastbound lanes were reopened, Cal Fire said.

A temporary evacuation site has been set up at the Larch Clover Community Center at 11157 W. Larch Road in Tracy.

“Most people stop by here before checking into hotels or looking for accommodation on their own,” Vigil said.

Additionally, the Hold Your Horses emergency evacuation team was called to help residents who might have assistance evacuating animals on Saturday evening.

The team was on standby, however the Contra Costa-based organization returned home without having to rescue any animals.

“We urge people to evacuate their animals in a timely manner,” said Chantel Tieman, co-founder of HYH. “Don't wait to get your animals to the evacuation site.”

The fire broke out around 2:40 p.m. Saturday near Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Site 300 southwest of Tracy.

Strong winds from the west caused the fire to spread quickly, burning east toward Tracy after it started Saturday afternoon. According to Cal Fire, the fire spread from 4,900 acres at 7:40 p.m. to 8,800 acres at 8:50 p.m.

By 6 a.m. Sunday morning, 12,500 acres of land had burned and the fire was only 15 percent contained.

As of 8 a.m. Sunday morning, improved weather conditions allowed emergency crews to continue building and reinforcing fire lines. At least 400 firefighters were dispatched to the fire and Cal Fire said “quite a few firefighting aircraft from across the state are flying firefighting missions as conditions permit.”

Early Saturday afternoon, the fire was reported to be 40 percent contained. As of 8:50 p.m. Saturday evening, the fire's containment was downgraded to just 10 percent, Cal Fire reported.

High winds complicated firefighters' efforts to get the fire under control early on. Aerial firefighters struggled to find safe airspace as wind gusts reached over 40 mph, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Josh Silveira said. Fire crews from across the region — including Alameda County, Santa Clara County and San Joaquin County — fought the fire from the ground.

Those strong westerly winds drove the fire east toward Tracy and Stockton, said Craig Shoemaker, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

To make matters worse, the wildfire started along Altamont Pass, where winds get stronger as you cross the narrow canyon, allowing the fire to “spread and really gain momentum,” Shoemaker said.

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