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Firefighters spent in daily sprint with Lake County’s fast-moving Rocky Fire

More hose is requested as crews head up the hill where the Rocky Fire jumped Highway 20, east of Spring Valley, Monday Aug. 3, 2015 in Lake County. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2015

PAUL PAYNE , THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Healdsburg firefighter Mike Price had been away from home a couple of days, working the lines on Napa County’s Wragg fire, when his team got called to what has become the biggest wildland inferno in California this year.

Price arrived in nearby Lake County as the Rocky fire cranked up and began its blistering race across at least 62,000 acres of drought-parched land, destroying 50 structures and prompting evacuation orders covering 5,530 residences.

The blaze chased him and members of a Sonoma County strike team as they attempted to save homes east of Lower Lake on Wednesday. They trudged down long rural driveways carrying hundreds of feet of hose, only to be brushed back by a wall of flames when the winds shifted.

“If the hairs aren’t standing up on the back of your neck, you’re not human,” Price said Monday, looking back on the most stressful moments of the past five days.

He was one of about 3,000 firefighters battling high heat, dehydration and long work hours in an attempt to stop the Rocky fire, which sprang up Wednesday out of heavy brush and timberland. Since then, the fire has sprinted across rural ranches and public wildland east of Lower Lake, throwing flames well ahead of the main front and pushing a towering column of smoke into the sky.

Veteran firefighters say they have seen few blazes like it in their careers. Over the weekend, amid scorching heat, the fire tripled in size. In one five-hour period, it consumed 20,000 acres.

David Cornelssen, a Windsor battalion chief who is leading one of the two Sonoma County strike teams, said the Rocky fire “ranks right up there” in terms of size and scope with other fires in his 35 years of experience.

“We’re at the mercy of the weather,” he said. “The challenge is always in the afternoons, when it heats up and the fire increases in intensity.”

New members of his team are being rotated in, but some have been in the field continuously since July 22, when the now nearly contained Wragg fire started in Napa County.

Firefighters from local, state and federal agencies, as well as inmate crews, were deployed along nearly a dozen areas of the Rocky fire’s expansive perimeter Monday. They were using everything from shovels, modified axes called Pulaskis, fire engines and bulldozers to put out flames and prevent their spread. Overhead, helicopters and air tankers were called in during the afternoon to make a near-constant stream of drops on the fire.

It was about 12 percent contained as of Monday evening, having burned over 94 square miles, carving out an area the size of Seattle between Highways 53 and 16 and south of Highway 20. On Monday, it jumped Highway 20 east of Spring Valley, prompting an aggressive response to halt its northward march.

After working 24-hour shifts, members of strike teams from across the state grabbed hot showers and food Monday at a command center at the Lake County Fairgrounds in Lakeport. They lay on the ground under shady trees or crawled into air-conditioned bunks inside mobile sleeping trailers parked at the raceway.

Price, the Healdsburg firefighter, rinsed off the previous day’s sweat and dirt before heading into town for a quick bite. He said the brief respite will keep firefighters motivated as the blaze wears on.

“That felt like heaven,” he said after emerging from a mobile shower.

He and fellow Healdsburg firefighter Jonah Brem shaved and donned fresh blue Healdsburg fire T-shirts as dozens of others did the same. Brem said the sleeping trailers were an improvement over previous accommodations — a tent.

“Each bunk is like a little cocoon,” Brem said. “Each one has its own air conditioner and light.”

The two Sonoma County strike teams are working alternating shifts on the Rocky fire.

Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman led a group to a ridgetop near Lower Lake on Monday. He said the first day, his firefighters hauled out 4,000 feet of hose in steep terrain.

“It was up and down hills all day, but they held up,” he said.

Cornelssen said the first 12 hours were the most dramatic for members of his team. He was deployed to Rocky Creek Lane, where the fire was said to have started, but was forced to retreat in the face of 150-foot flames that threatened houses.

Fortunately, he said firefighters are prepared to move.

“It happened fast, but when we go into an area like that the ability to get out is always on your mind,” he said. “We were positioned well to do that.”

Sunday night, he said his team was on a ridge east of Clear Lake where activity seemed reduced from previous days.

On Monday, the team was set to enjoy 24 hours off before heading back out to fight the fire. But they were called back to the lines ahead of schedule Monday afternoon.

“I’m tired,” he said as other firefighters walked to the showers. “We’re dealing with 100- degree temperatures every day.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.