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River Bottom Fires Keep Area Departments Busy
Two air support units were brought in to help contain a 20-acre vegetation fire along the Stanislaus River in Escalon at mid-afternoon Monday; here, Cal Fire 205 drops more water onto the fire, burning near McHenry Recreation Area. Marg Jackson/The Times

Two significant river bottom fires in the Escalon area saw firefighters from Escalon and several other area departments battling the stubborn blazes on Saturday and Monday.

The Monday afternoon, July 3 fire was the larger of the two, requiring the use of air support units to assist.

Escalon Fire Chief Rick Mello said the call came in shortly before 3:30 p.m., indicating it was a vegetation fire close to McHenry Recreation Area, near the intersection of McHenry Avenue and River roads.

Deputy Fire Chief Darin Jesberg of Modesto Fire Department served as the PIO, Public Information Officer, on the scene.

“The fire started on the San Joaquin County side, jumped over the Stanislaus River, went to the Stanislaus County side; it’s about 20 acres total, most of the fire activity is on the San Joaquin County side, about two to three acres on the Stanislaus side,” Jesberg said.

After Escalon was dispatched initially, other units were called in to service within a half-hour, and the additional air support was also requested.

“There currently are about 25 units on scene, it’s a unified command, we have San Joaquin County resources, Stanislaus County resources, we have two helicopters assigned, one from Stanislaus County, Air 101, doing bucket drops and we have a helicopter from TCU (Tuolumne County Unit) from Cal Fire doing water drops as well,” Jesberg explained on scene.

McHenry Recreation Area was evacuated when the fire broke out and then shut down.

“We had a few kayakers who were on the river when the fire started, we got them off the river safely,” Jesberg said, adding that fire officials were alerted to smoke in the area by those on the river, though there was no immediate cause determined.

The fire was contained on the Stanislaus side in a little over two hours, with mop up occurring there about 6 p.m., while they anticipated a bit longer for containment on the San Joaquin side, expecting to spend three or four more hours there, on in to the evening hours on Monday.

“No structures involved, no structures threatened, no injuries,” Jesberg noted.

The CERT, Community Emergency Response Team, arrived shortly before 6 p.m. Monday, setting up an area with water and food for firefighters, coming in from Stanislaus County to offer assistance.

Mello said the cooperative effort between San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties was crucial in the fire attack, and he also praised the quick response of neighboring agencies such as Ripon Fire for bringing in manpower and equipment.

“It’s a good partnership,” Mello said of the mutual aid situation.

Meanwhile, a fire on Saturday night, July 1 was also along the river bottom and Mello said the cause was traced to the use of ‘Safe and Sane’ fireworks – though they were being used illegally in an area where they are not permitted. They are allowed only in the city limits of Escalon and the fire was along River Road, between Van Allen and Carrolton roads west of the city.

Mello said the fireworks caught some dry grass on fire, which then spread to a large refuse pile and also spread under some cars, catching them on fire as well. Flames also spread to some nearby palm trees.

Escalon called in mutual aid from a number of departments including some from San Joaquin County and some from Stanislas County, the original call coming in about 9:15 p.m.

Crews were on scene for about four hours, Mello said, and there were structures threatened but they were able to keep the fire from reaching any of those structures.

“There’s a lot of dry grass out there,” Mello said.

Several pieces of equipment from surrounding departments, in addition to manpower, were brought in Monday afternoon, July 3, to help contain a large vegetation fire along the river bottom in Escalon, near McHenry Avenue and River Road. The fire burned on both sides of the Stanislaus River, in San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties. Marg Jackson/The Times
Escalon Fire Department Battalion Chief Joe Pelot, at right, talks with firefighters in an Escalon rig, near the scene of a large vegetation fire at McHenry Recreation Area on Monday afternoon, July 3. Marg Jackson/The Times