Firefighters took advantage of cooler temperatures and a light drizzle Tuesday as they stepped up containment of the 67,000-acre Rocky fire, establishing solid lines around 20 percent of the blaze during what was the calmest day for crews since the fire began a week ago.
The progress was considered a big break in the battle against the state’s largest blaze, which until Tuesday had been nearly uncontrollable, racing over rural properties and wildland, burning more than 50 structures, and as late as Monday, jumping a major highway firefighters had hoped to use to halt the advance.
The fire burned an additional 3,000 acres Tuesday, expanding in the wildland north of Highway 20 near where it jumped the road Monday afternoon.
After the exponential growth at the fire’s perimeter over the weekend, fire officials signaled they were content with the gains Tuesday.
“The weather is cooperating and acreage is not going up significantly,” said Paul Lowenthal, a Santa Rosa assistant fire marshal who is supervising public information officers on the wildfire. “The fire activity has been relatively calm for a full day for the first time.”
Still, there were signs in the sky late Tuesday that worried fire commanders, with thunderstorms expected during the night, raising the possibility that lightning could fuel additional fires in the area. Firefighters were heading out late Tuesday to strengthen fire lines.
“We’ll probably have lightning tonight through (Wednesday). That kind of weather makes people nervous up here,” said David Cornelssen, a battalion chief for Central Fire in Windsor.
Cornelssen has been leading a crew of 21 Sonoma County firefighters on the effort, and Tuesday evening they were headed to their all-night assignment along Highway 20.
“All the hard work that’s been put into it to get it where it is ... It would all be for naught” if lightning sparked more fires in the area, Cornelssen said.
The Rocky fire is one of almost two dozen wildfires burning in California. Almost 3,500 firefighters are working the blaze, including about 100 personnel from Sonoma County’s fire agencies.
Containment Tuesday morning started at about 12 percent. By evening, another survey showed that figure was up to about 20 percent, Cal Fire officials said.
No additional buildings were lost Tuesday, leaving the number of homes destroyed at about two dozen. Another two dozen outbuildings, such as barns, also were lost earlier in the fire.
Mandatory evacuations remained in place Tuesday night for rural communities including Spring Valley, northwest of the fire. About 1,200 people had been ordered out of their homes and another 10,000 or so were warned they should leave the area because of the fire’s location.
The advisory evacuation orders included the largest city in the area, Clearlake, as well as the town of Clearlake Oaks.
Forecasts Tuesday initially called for gusts of 15 to 20 mph from the east, leaving fire officials worried the flames would push closer to Clearlake in the same way they had encroached on Lower Lake days before. Evacuations of Clearlake, home to nearly 15,000 people, would have become mandatory in such conditions, Lowenthal said.
But the winds didn’t materialize and cooler temperatures with thick cloud cover even generated a light drizzle, offering firefighters a break in the heat, including days of 100-degree highs that have fueled the blaze.
Still, Lake County’s Office of Emergency Services on Tuesday afternoon opened a third evacuation center and residents were encouraged to take advantage of the sites as a precaution.
Sebastopol resident Troy Clemens was helping set up the new shelter Tuesday afternoon at Upper Lake Middle School. “Because of the threat to Clearlake Oaks, they’ve asked us to set up here,” said Clemens, the director of a Sebastopol-based community and disaster response team that has been partnering with the Red Cross during the fire.
The other two shelters are at Middletown and Kelseyville high schools. Clemens said he had heard only a few dozen people were using them for overnight shelter but that more were dropping in during the day.
Clearlake resident Ryan Gardner said he and his family are staying put at their home for now. “We can’t see any fire or flames. Yesterday, we did a little bit. Sunday, there was a big plume,” Gardner said. “Honestly, until I see that fire head over the ridge, I’m not too concerned about it.”
Gardner, who drives a taxicab in the area, said he’s heard a mixture of worry and nonchalance from folks.
“A lot of people are concerned. I know some people who packed up, left, then came back. They’re about to leave again,” said Gardner.
The fire started last Wednesday east of Lower Lake in Morgan Valley. During its most dramatic runs it grew startlingly fast, burning 22,000 acres in just five hours on Saturday night.
The fire has spread into Yolo and Colusa counties and charred acreage in inaccessible, steep terrain, including in the newly designated Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument.
As of Tuesday evening, the fire continued to threaten almost 7,000 structures, according to Cal Fire. The day’s efforts included the use of 19 helicopters, four air tankers and 63 bulldozers.
The Rocky fire is burning through a landscape parched by the state’s four-year drought, consuming brush, timber and grasses that have been deprived of much of their moisture. The flames have left in their wake a moonscape in many areas and a patchwork of debris and singed vegetation in others, with flames having burned over 100 square miles.
Fire officials have warned about the potential for such a blaze for months, issuing alerts beginning in late winter and early spring. With Northern California now alight with major fires, the Rocky fire foremost among them, the region has captured the world’s attention.
Reporters have checked in from across the United States, as well as Germany, Mexico, Ireland, Australia and France.
“Today, Al Jazeera is here,” Lowenthal said, speaking from a command post in Lakeport, about 25 miles away from the western fire line.
The fires have been a drain on local firefighting agencies and those throughout the state.
In addition to their commitment of firefighters, Sonoma County agencies have sent 23 engines, including three strike teams and several ranking firefighters serving in various management positions.
It’s about as much personnel and equipment as the county’s agencies can spare, said Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner, who is helping coordinate the out-of-county aid. “We try to do as much as possible, knowing the severity of it.”
Two more fire engines are all the county now can afford to release, Gossner said. “We’re pretty maxed out. Everything else needs to reside in the county to protect what we have.”
As well as Cornelssen’s group of local firefighters, Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman is leading another strike team of locals who also have been assigned to the Rocky fire. The two groups are on opposite 24-hour shifts and passed each other Tuesday morning as Baxman’s group headed in for a break and Cornelssen’s returned to the fire lines.
A third local strike team is being led by Sonoma Valley Fire District Division Chief Bob Norrbom. They were sent to Humboldt County to battle 70 lightning fires that have so far burned about 3,200 acres and as of Tuesday evening were 25 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.
Staff Writer Julie Johnson contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ rossmannreport.