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Spate of blazes keeps firefighers busy

The combination of high winds and tinder-dry grass sparked nearly two-dozen vegetation fires Tuesday throughout Merced County. While structures were threatened in some cases, none was lost in the wind-fanned blazes.

Capt. Gabe Santos of the Merced County Fire Department said between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m., 20 different fires were reported and the winds were a major factor. He praised fire departments throughout the county for their quick and coordinated responses.

The biggest of the fires was a 1 p.m. blaze at a hunting area at Highway 140 and Santa Fe Grade, which threatened but ultimately did not damage trailers used by hunters. This fire was caused by sparks from a chain being dragged along the road.

Winds between 20 and 30 mph, with gusts up to 50 mph, aggravated firefighting efforts. A fire at Highway 140 and Sullivan Road near Gustine blackened a half-acre of roadside grass and another half-acre of grass went up in flames on Highway 165 near Henry Miller Road near Los Banos. An acre of dry grass caught fire in the Santa Fe Business Park near Merced.

Meteorologist Jeff Barlow of the National Weather Service in Hanford said the winds came with a cold front that lowered local temperatures by about 5 degrees Tuesday. It will be 2 to 5 degrees cooler today, with lower winds expected.

A heat wave is coming Friday with triple-digit temperatures for much of the San Joaquin Valley from Saturday to Monday, Barlow said.

At the Merced Municipal Airport, peak wind gusts of 39 mph were registered at 2 p.m. An equal reading was observed at 3 p.m. at the Castle Airport and 29 mph gusts were noted in Los Banos, with Westside wind gusts between 35 and 45 mph, Barlow said.

Santos said winds were blowing power lines down throughout the county Tuesday. In some cases power poles broke off or were destroyed by fire. Tuesday night was due to be a busy evening for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. crews, the captain said.

In the city of Merced, Fire Chief Ken Mitten said firefighters responded to grass fires at West 16th Street and Highway 59, and Highway 140 near the Bradley Overhead. Only minor damage was reported and no structures were involved.

Winds also were blamed for fanning a fire which burned along an overgrown dry creek bottom between Whealan Road and Arboleda Drive in the Planada area, briefly threatening three nearby farmhouses.

Battalion Chief Glenda Leonard, deputy director of administration with the Merced County Fire Department, said the 5 p.m. fire stetched for about an eighth of a mile along the creekbed-ravine, consuming years of accumulated tree limbs, dry brush, ground cover and dead vegetation.

Leonard wasn't sure what started the two-acre fire which was stopped short of an almond orchard on the other side of the creekbed. The fire also involved two large piles of almond firewood.

About 15 firefighters from Atwater, McKee, Planada and Le Grand stations battled the Whealen fire which was contained about 6 p.m. With wind gusts still hitting 30 mph at 7 p.m., Leonard expected firefighters to remain on the scene until at least 9 p.m. to guard against flare-ups.

"It's time-consuming, not easy, to put out one of these fires," Leonard said. "It's a dirty fire; the hot spots are still kicking up. It'll take a while to mop up, take all the heat out of it."

Statewide, fires fed by raging winds raced across a wide swath of Northern California on Tuesday, destroying dozens of homes, threatening hundreds of others and leaving a firefighter severely burned.

The fires were concentrated in areas north and south of the state capital, while separate blazes burned near the coast in Monterey and Sonoma counties.

"The winds are just howling, 40 mph," Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said while watching a 1,000-acre wildfire near Sacramento race out of control.

In Palermo, a town of about 5,000 residents about 60 miles north of Sacramento, a 1,200-acre wildfire had destroyed 21 homes and about 30 other structures by Tuesday evening, said Joshpae White, a spokesman for the state fire agency.

South of Sacramento, several fires that ignited along Interstate 5 in Stockton blew out of control. The fires damaged or destroyed nine houses, 20 condominiums and one triplex, said Connie Cochran, a Stockton city spokeswoman.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or