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Three fatalities in Mendocino County fire, more expected

(@MENDOSHERIFF)

JULIE JOHNSON,

A deadly wildfire burning through central Mendocino County continued to grow uncontrolled Tuesday, engulfing more than 32 square miles from Potter Valley to Redwood Valley and advancing toward Willits.

Children were among three people confirmed to have died so far in the fire’s destructive path through the Redwood Valley, a toll officials said would no doubt grow, according to Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman. Further details about the fatalities weren’t released. Four people were seriously injured and another 24 suffered lesser injuries.

“We certainly have reason to believe the number will increase,” Allman said.

Pushing north and east, the 28,500-acre fire — called the Redwood Complex — burned aggressively throughout the day, growing in multiple directions through woods, ranches and vineyards, and threatening about 800 structures in the Pine Mountain area to the north and Van Arsdale to the east, Cal Fire Unit Chief George Gonzalez said.

“We have large spans of PG&E lines that are down, active and sparking,” Gonzalez said. “Trees weak at the roots are falling. This is a very active firefight as well as a dangerous situation.”

Starting late Sunday as two separate wildfires that combined, the blaze so far has destroyed an estimated 250 homes.

Alison de Grassi, who has lived in Redwood Valley for about 23 years and is communications director with the county’s tourism marketing arm, said she heard the fire was just one road away from her Redwood Valley property. She and her husband evacuated early Monday and remain at a friend’s home.

The fire burned through a community of ranches, vineyards and farms, destroying people’s homes and livelihoods.

“It’s just horrific, makes you appreciate how life can turn on a dime,” de Grassi said. “These are their ranges, their animals — it’s their entire existence.”

The fire started about 10:35 p.m. Sunday in an area north of Highway 20 and west of the Mendocino National Forest, south of Black Bart.

A sheriff’s sergeant spotted fire about 1 a.m. Monday on Hawn Creek Road in northern Potter Valley. The wind was severe, with strong gusts throwing branches and toppling trees.

On Tuesday, the area of the fire included northern Redwood Valley and offshoot roads, northern Potter Valley, Pine Mountain Estates south of Willits and an area near Adventist Health Howard Memorial Hospital in Willits, according to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office. The fire at one point crossed Highway 101, heading up the Willits grade.

Evacuations remained in place in Redwood Valley and areas of Potter Valley and Golden Rule. Shelters were open at Ukiah and Willits high schools, Ukiah fairgrounds for people and animals and the Ukiah animal shelter is taking animals.

Four helicopters and eight air tankers have been battling the blaze, along with about 450 personnel on the fire “at any given time,” said Cal Fire spokeswoman Tricia Austin.

Austin said the heavy smoke has made it hard for air crews to “find the targets and hit them right.”

Large areas of the region were without cellphone communication, and the county was calling outside resources.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.