SOULSBYVILLE -- A wildfire obliterated two houses but spared dozens more as it burned across 30 acres of dry grass and woodland.
No one was injured as of Wednesday night, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported, but the blaze brought a searing reminder of the danger this time of year.
"It's miraculous that they saved as many homes as they did," said Bethany McBeth, owner of a Mount Hope Lane home that was destroyed soon after the fire started about 6 p.m. Tuesday.
Her mother, Gale Fitzgerald, lived in the home and escaped unharmed, said McBeth, who owns and lives in the undamaged home next door.
McBeth said the lost house was insured and she hopes to rebuild. Her mother is staying with another family member.
One person lived in the other home that burned, one street away on Mountain Side Drive, said Trista Cunningham, communications director for the American Red Cross. Further information on that person was unavailable.
The cause of the fire is under investigation, Battalion Chief Roy Evans said. Cal Fire reported it 65 percent contained by Wednesday evening.
Tuolumne County and California as a whole have had relatively light wildfire losses in the past few years, but that can change fast in the heat of August. It was 25 years ago this month that lightning in Stanislaus National Forest sparked dozens of fires, which would merge into the 147,000-acre Stanislaus Complex fire.
This year, a dry winter meant below-average moisture in brush and tree branches in summer, making them more susceptible to fires started by lightning, arson or other causes.
"We're in the beginning of the upswing in the heat wave," Evans said. "The fuels are at their critical point."
The fire that started Tuesday is in Monte Grande Heights, a subdivision about half a mile south of the old mining town of Soulsbyville and five miles east of Sonora.
"At one point, there were flames that looked like they were shooting 100 feet up into the air," said Ben Lucas, who lives on a nearby ridge. "It got within 60 yards of my place."
As he spoke, inmate fire crews worked on a charred hillside, checking for embers that might blow the blaze back up. Relatively little smoke rose from the fire, which Evans said was staying in its 30-acre "footprint."
A total of 161 people had responded as of Wednesday, most of them front-line firefighters using hand tools and bulldozers to carve a fuel-free line around the perimeter. They got help from planes dropping retardant and helicopters putting water on especially hot spots. Fifteen fire engines and two water tenders also were on hand.
Power has been restored to the 1,300 customers who were without it Tuesday night. Residents who voluntarily left their homes after the fire broke out have been allowed to return. A two-mile stretch of Soulsbyville Road had been closed but has reopened.
The Red Cross opened the Soulsbyville Club House as an evacuation center Tuesday. About 10 people went to the center for information, but no one stayed overnight, Cunningham said.
Angela Vela and her daughter Vanessa watched the fire from their home on Mountain Side Drive.
"I just saw this engulfed in flames, just shooting up in the air," the mother said.
They lost an empty shed to the fire, but firefighters stopped it about 50 feet from their house. They noted that they had followed the advice from fire agencies to reduce vegetation on the property.
Modesto Bee staff writer Erin Tracy contributed to this report.
Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.