1,000 homes lost in Lake County's Valley Fire
A catastrophic wildfire that tore through southern Lake County — destroying as many as 1,000 homes and sending more than 19,000 residents fleeing for safety — appeared Sunday to have killed at least one person as it continued its rampage, expanding in every direction and advancing into remote, rugged areas of neighboring Sonoma and Napa counties.
Cal Fire was still trying Sunday night to confirm a report of a fatality related to the fast-moving fire, though no details were available.
The Valley fire had blackened more than 85 square miles by Sunday night, wiping out large swaths of several communities with a speed that public officials described as the worst-case scenario many in drought-ravaged California had feared.
Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin called the blaze, which as of Monday morning had burned 61,000 acres, 'the worst tragedy Lake County has ever seen.'
'This fire is of historic proportions,' state Sen. Mike McGuire said from Lake County, where he'd been up all night observing the fire and meeting with firefighters, public officials and victims of the blaze. 'It's been absolutely devastating.'
Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday declared a state of emergency in Lake and Napa counties, where the fire crossed over near Aetna Springs and prompted evacuation in parts of Pope Valley as it moved eastward.
The fire — which cast a smoky haze over the North Coast and, in some locations, wafted ash — also extended across the Sonoma County line near The Geysers geothermal energy complex, causing what Sonoma County Fire Chief Al Terrell described as 'significant damage' to three Calpine cooling towers.
The fire was still wholly uncontained Sunday night, however, despite more than 1,000 fire personnel who had arrived to take part in the battle, Cal Fire said.
Firefighting efforts were severely hampered by morning fog and heavy smoke that grounded air tankers and other aircraft throughout the day Sunday even as the fire moved from Middletown and the valley floor — the site of the fiercest overnight firefights — into higher, more rugged terrain where air attack is most essential, said Marin County Sheriff's Lt. Doug Pittman, who was serving as spokesman for Cal Fire.
'Not having that has been very detrimental to our progress,' he said.
In addition, the firefighting effort had been so targeted on preserving life and property that few personnel could be spared for the expanding front, he and other officials said.
'This fire grew so fast, so large, so rapidly that even with the deployment of immediate resources that were coming, there wasn't enough resources that could keep up with the spread that was taking place,' Pittman said. 'The resources were directed at structure protection and protection of life.'
'This thing went 40,000 acres in a very short period of time,' noted Santa Rosa Fire Battalion Chief Jack Piccinini, who has been in the thick of the battle while providing mutual aid assistance at the Valley fire. 'That in itself is the measure of the challenge.'
The speed of the blaze was evident from the start when it quickly overran four firefighters from a state helitack crew who were part of the initial response from nearby Boggs Mountain State Park, where the seven-member helicopter crew is normally stationed. The four firefighters all suffered burns that were described as second-degree, though one, Capt. Pat Ward, the crew leader, was said to be in critical but stable condition Sunday. The other three — Niko Matteoli, Richard Reiff and Logan Pridmore — were said to be in fair condition.
No other injuries have been reported, though the haste with which residents were forced to flee their homes left lingering concern that the situation could change once it's safe and feasible to get into all of the remote fire areas.
Lake County Sheriff Martin said there had been no reports of missing persons, though Pittman said Cal Fire had received numerous calls from friends and family asking that someone check on loved ones they hadn't been able to reach in the chaos of the weekend.
Indeed, though fires have been rampant throughout tinder dry California in the past few months — including four other major wildfires in Lake County alone this summer — and several major fires continued to burn through the weekend, the Valley fire's explosive, lightning-fast expansion proved terrifying even to those who have been through fire before.
It is now the state firefighting agency's top priority, said McGuire, D-Healdsburg, permitting Cal Fire to divert resources from other wildfires.
'Last night,' McGuire said, 'we were in Middletown — I don't know, around 3 a.m. — and you talk with 30-year veterans of Cal Fire who have seen the worst of the worst, and they've never seen anything like the Valley fire.'