LOWER LAKE — Stunned by the Rocky fire’s 20,000-acre rampage on Saturday, state fire officials said Sunday they no longer know what to expect from the largest and fastest-growing of the 20-plus wildfires burning in California’s drought-baked wildlands.
“Never happened before,” said Scott Lindgren, Cal Fire incident commander for the 54,000-acre blaze that broke out Wednesday near Lower Lake and now stretches east to touch Yolo and Colusa counties.
In five hours on Saturday, starting about 4 p.m., the fire made a 20,000-acre run through the driest Lake County woodlands ever measured by Cal Fire in the past century, Lindgren said.
No previous Lake County fire has matched the Rocky fire’s behavior, Lindgren said Sunday afternoon as about 600 people packed the Lower Lake High School gymnasium for a community meeting.
Scott McLean, a Cal Fire spokesman, said the Rocky fire was “dramatic, unpredictable.” Asked what Cal Fire’s strategy is, he said, “We’re reading the fire, reading the weather, looking at the topography and basing our attack on that.”
“The fire will tell us what we need to do — if we’re able to do it,” he said.
The fire remains only 5 percent contained, with firefighters having concentrated on keeping flames away from the communities of Lower Lake and Clearlake and then slowing its spread into more remote areas to the northeast.
As officials spoke at the high school Sunday, a small air force of helicopters and retardant-dropping planes and an army of 2,000 firefighters battled the blaze, and a massive plume of smoke sullied the blue sky, drifting toward Clearlake and Lower Lake.
The effort was focused on preventing the fire from crossing highways 20 and 16 in east Lake County. Highway 16 remained closed Sunday, cutting off a direct route from the Clear Lake area to Interstate 5.
Highway 20 was closed from the intersection with Highway 53 east of Clearlake Oaks to Highway 16 as officials evacuated two new areas Sunday evening, along Ogulin Canyon Road and in Spring Valley.
An estimated 230 to 290 people had been given mandatory evacuation orders and about 5,000 more were under advisory evacuation orders, meaning they should prepare to leave their homes, Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said.
Late Sunday, authorities issued an evacuation advisory for residents along Highway 20 between Highway 53 and Sulphur Bank Road, near the Clear Lake Keys.
Cal Fire said up to 12,000 residents could be impacted by evacuation notices before the fire is brought under control, which isn’t anticipated for at least a week.
“We’re trying our darndest to stay ahead of it,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mike Shorrock told the crowd gathered in Lower Lake.
Asked if the fire could reverse direction and move toward Clearlake, Lindgren said it could.
“We’re not out of the woods on this fire yet,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do” and more evacuations might be ordered.
More than 6,300 homes remain threatened, Cal Fire said. The blaze has destroyed 24 homes and 26 outbuildings and damaged an additional three structures.
Late Sunday, the Red Cross reopened a second shelter for evacuees at Kelseyville High School. Another shelter is located at Middletown High School. An animal evacuation center is opened at the Lower Lake Social Services parking lot.
State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, told the crowd in Lower Lake that his job is “to make sure Lake County has the resources to get through this disaster and to recover.”
More than 400 firefighting hand crews have been activated for duty in California, including for the Rocky fire, along with 10 helicopters, and three C-130 aircraft are bound for the Lake County blaze, he said.
Federal assistance will mean that local, tribal and state governments can recoup 75 percent of their firefighting costs, McGuire said.
The state Office of Emergency Services will assist property owners in filing claims for their losses, he said. The state agency is “here for the long haul,” McGuire said.
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, pledged to help marshal resources “to make sure we get out of it whole.”