Cache fire destroys dozens of Lake County homes as power outages, evacuation orders affect thousands

The wind-driven blaze was halted at 80 acres Wednesday, but not before it reduced a mobile home park to ruins, injured at least one resident and forced the evacuation of more than 1,000 residents.|

CLEARLAKE — A fast-moving, wind-whipped fire injured at least one person, destroyed dozens of residences and other structures and killed or injured several animals in drought-stricken Lake County Wednesday afternoon in the region’s most destructive fire yet this summer.

First reported shortly after 12:30 p.m. near Cache Street and Sixth Avenue in southeast Clearlake, flames quickly spread west and south, engulfing the Creekside Mobile Home Park and forcing the evacuation of at least 1,600 people, including students at two Lower Lake schools.

Approximately 1,300 people remained under evacuation orders late Wednesday, said Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin, who earlier in the day had pleaded with residents to immediately leave neighborhoods under threat from the Cache fire.

"This is a very, very serious event,“ Martin said in a streamed update after 2 p.m. "We need you to help us help you and please leave the area. Don't just get a couple blocks away, get out of the area."

At least one mobile home park resident suffered burns, authorities said. She was airlifted to a hospital with moderate injuries.

Fire burned about 80 acres and leveled structures as it marched south, past the mostly dry streambed of Cache Creek, toward school campuses on Lake Street.

About 40 units at the Creekside Mobile Home Park appear to have been destroyed, according to aerial photos and videos. Lake County Supervisor Bruno Sabatier said most residents of the park are low-income or seniors.

An adjacent park, Cache Creek Mobile Home Estates, appeared to have averted major damage.

Several animals, some of which were described as livestock, were killed along Dam Road, witnesses said.

A wave of evacuation orders caused jammed roads in Clearlake and Lower Lake, forcing some residents to run along stopped cars on Highway 53 leading out of town.

“It was huge. It wasn’t when I called (911), but by the time I got home and evacuated, it was huge,” she said.

Corinna Wilkinson said she dialed 911 from work around 12:30 p.m. before heading to her apartment at Dam and Lake Street. Around 12:45 p.m., she evacuated with her 13-year-old son, 21-year-old nephew and a cat, dog and bird.

The drive out through smoke was “scary, worrisome and chaotic,” she said.

“It was huge. It wasn’t when I called (911), but by the time I got home and evacuated, it was huge,” she said.

Officials declared the fire’s forward progress halted around 5 p.m. and by 7 p.m. had built containment lines around 20% of its footprint.

A shelter at Kelseyville High School was open for evacuees. All Konocti Unified schools will remain closed Thursday.

Crews were continuing to work overnight to douse hotspots and keep embers from whipping away and starting other fires, Lake County Fire Protection District Chief Willie Sapeta said.

A full damage assessment will be conducted over the next several days.

No cause determined

No cause had been determined as of late Wednesday. Sheriff Martin noted the vast majority of fires are human-caused, although he wasn’t necessarily suggesting malicious intent.

“If somebody did start this, I’d like to see them held accountable,” he said.

The fire comes a year and two days after lightning-sparked fires ravaged Northern California, with the Walbridge fire rampaging through western Sonoma County and the massive Hennessey fire spanning much of eastern Napa County and part of Lake County.

Midday Wednesday, buses rushed to evacuate hundreds of students from Lower Lake Elementary School and Lower Lake High School as the fire spread toward the campuses from the north. The schools weren’t damaged, but flames did reach a stretch of land between Highway 53 and Lake Street just west of the campuses.

Flames burned near the footprint of the 2015 Valley fire and 2016 Clayton fire — only two of the many destructive blazes Lake County has endured in less than a decade. Nearly two dozen major blazes have blackened nearly 1.5 million acres in the North Bay — the equivalent of 130% of Sonoma County — from 2015 through 2020.

“There is no other county in the state that has been hit as hard as Lake County,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, whose 2nd District includes the region.

Two-thirds of the land mass of Lake County has burned since 2015, he said.

But Wednesday’s fire was different than many in the recent past in that it began in a more inhabited area, heightening the danger to humans, residences, schools and towns.

Tinderbox conditions

“This blaze was (particularly) dangerous because it happened in the middle of the community, with tinderbox conditions and wind gusts that helped fuel the blaze,” McGuire said.

Sapeta said this week’s wind, which led to a Red Flag Warning, played a role in fire activity Wednesday.

“We were in the mist of it,” he said. “It was a key factor.”

Winds gusted up to 32 mph Wednesday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service, but are expected to diminish Thursday across the area. A Red Flag Warning remains in effect until 11 a.m. Thursday above 1,500 feet elevation.

The dry, hot, windy conditions led Pacific Gas & Electric to conduct planned power shut-offs in Lake, Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties.

Between the fire and planned shutoffs, nearly 12,500 Lake County customers were without power during the height of the fire.

PG&E showed 7,714 customers were without power around 2 p.m. in “unplanned outages,” most in Clearlake. The utility company had selectively shut down another 4,767 in Lake County for safety reasons, according to its website.

By late evening, 2,795 customers remained without power, about 1,200 of which were fire-related.

Fire officials said some transmission towers had been damaged, which will delay the restoration of electricity.

Ramona Sanchez and her husband, David Steffan, were among those evacuated from the Cache Creek mobile home park where they have lived for three years. While Steffan took a walk, Sanchez sat in their Honda Fit, parked at a shopping center along Dam Road where buses dropped off evacuees.

Sanchez wondered if her home still stood, but was even more concerned about her neighbor, Barbara, who declined to go with them when they evacuated.

“I really hope she’s OK,” Sanchez, 57, said around 6 p.m. “We told her we’d take her. She said no.”

Nowhere to go

As Sanchez sat in her car, three other evacuees and their dogs sat at bus stops. They said they had nowhere to go and declined to comment further.

Just around the corner, a larger number of residents gathered at the Dam Road roadblock in hopes of going home. Many sought ways to keep themselves occupied, but couldn’t rely on businesses due to power outages.

Maggie Magoolaghan said she was shopping at Safeway when power went out. She put her three items back on the shelves and left, only to find road closures keeping her from getting home to Kelseyville on the west side of Clear Lake.

She spent several hours parked at the roadblock.

“I’m just frustrated because I have no phone to call my daughter,” Magoolaghan said.

Dry, windy conditions and PG&E’s planned power outages trigger residents’ post-traumatic stress, said Sabatier, who represents the district where much of the damage occurred.

“I don’t think there’s anyone that lives in Lake County that has not experienced an evacuation,” he said. “The Mendocino (Complex) fire was the entire north shore, Blue Lakes, Lucerne, Clearlake Oaks; the Sulphur fire, city of Clearlake, the Valley fire. It just goes on and on. The Rocky fire.

“We all lived through those things. Even if it’s not us (who’s lost a home), it really brings about a deep-seated emotion of knowing what people are go through. It’s gut-wrenching to know somebody’s house burned. It’s gut-wrenching to not know if somebody’s house is safe.”

But, he said, there are also reasons for optimism. The county and other local agencies have formed a joint-powers association that secured funding and created a 400-foot firebreak on the east side of Clearlake — just short of the area that burned Wednesday.

“We have plans to do more,” he said. “But we had to pull teeth to get what we need. The environmental process can take years. We’ve done more fire mitigation than we’ve ever done.

“Even though we’re making great strides, we’re sometimes going to hit a step back. Today was absolutely a step back,” he said. “But it reinvigorates what we’re doing. We can’t let it demoralize us. Still, I can’t help but feel we fell short because we failed the people who lost homes.”

Staff Writers Nashelly Chavez and Kaylee Tornay contributed to this story.

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