LEGGETT — The Lodge Complex fire is burning its way eastward through rural Mendocino County and showing no signs of retreat.
Strong, erratic winds, combined with the possibility of dry thunderstorms are increasing the fire’s threat to residents, businesses and the wilderness.
Heading into its 13th day, the blaze has burned 10,000 acres, is closing in on about 60 structures and forcing residents to seek emergency shelter.
While some residents in a half-dozen mountainous enclaves are seeking shelter with friends and family, many are choosing to stay put, and others are flocking to a nearby school-turned-evacuation center in Leggett, a town at the intersection of highways 101 and 1 with a population of just over 100 people.
Jeff Allen, 55, who owns a ranch just south of Leggett, was preparing his shelter area Monday afternoon at the Leggett Valley School. Allen said with flames growing closer, and smoke growing thicker, he and his wife plan to evacuate their home and animals. The couple packed their two vehicles with the essentials — important papers, family photos, tools and canning equipment for produce from their garden.
“I’m nervous as all heck. I can’t see a quarter-mile from my property,” Allen said, lifting his arm above his head, squinting to block his eyes from the thick smoke that filled the air. “How do you put 30 years into the bed of a pickup?”
The blaze has spread over 15 square miles since it started June 30, rolling across rugged mountains west of Highway 101 near the towns of Laytonville on the southern edge, and moving north to Leggett. Crews achieved 40 percent containment on the western edge of the fire, but flames broke through a fuel break on the eastern front, forcing firefighters to build new fire breaks by removing heavy timber and other debris on the fire’s perimeter to hamper further growth.
“We have seen containment, but the fire did jump our lines on some parts,” said Larry Pendarvis, a Cal Fire spokesman. “It’s always bad when it gets outside our line, but the wind, the hot weather and the terrain make fire jumping a very real possibility. Plus, the drought has just made everything that much worse.”
Crews continue to chop trees and remove parched vegetation — perfect fuel starters — by using bulldozers and hand tools in the steep terrain. They’re dousing flames with water from nearby wells and the Eel River.
“Our most vulnerable area is to the north (bordering Leggett), so that’s where we’re focusing our efforts,” Pendarvis said.
Crews are using 22 bulldozers and nearly 2,400 personnel with 186 engines to help fight the fire, including firefighters from as far south as San Diego through nearly every metropolitan region up to the North Bay. Helicopter pilots from the Air National Guard were on duty, as well as 875 low-level state prisoners.
“These guys are essential to the mission,” said D.J. Cisneros, a corrections officer with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations. “They’re the backbone of the operation. They do a lot of the grunt work.”
Seven firefighters from the Santa Rosa Fire Department have been helping combat the blaze since last Tuesday, primarily by helping to rebuild the broken fire lines. Fire crews also were busy removing potential hazards, such as fallen trees that could block roads and hamper efforts to get in or out of the fire zone, said Santa Rosa fire Capt. Jack Thomas.