Cache fire’s environmental damage prompts Clearlake state of emergency

The Cache fire destroyed 56 homes in Clearlake. Officials say that because of environmental hazards caused by the blaze, it will take some time before people are allowed to return to their properties.|

By the numbers

Authorities say it may take a bit longer before affected areas of the Cache fire are repopulated. The cause of the blaze remains under investigation. As of Thursday:

83 acres have been scorched by the Cache fire

40% containment reached

56 homes were destroyed

81 outbuildings were destroyed

158 vehicles were destroyed

712 people remain evacuated

72 of the evacuees are being cared for at the Twin Pines Casino

A day after hundreds of residents in Clearlake and the neighboring town of Lower Lake fled for their lives as the fast-moving, wind-fed Cache fire engulfed homes, destroyed or damaged trees, vehicles and infrastructure, emotions remained high.

For some, though, the fear had turned into anger and frustration.

Don Shae repeatedly returned Thursday to the intersection of Dam Road and Lake Street where a roadblock kept him from accessing the rural neighborhood where the Cache fire wiped out a mobile home park and several other properties.

Authorities said the blaze, which began Wednesday in the Lake County city about 50 miles northeast of Santa Rosa, destroyed 56 homes and 81 outbuildings, as well as 158 vehicles and 30 telephone and power poles.

Stretching east along Dam away from Highway 53, some of the destruction was about a quarter mile from the intersection where the 70-year-old Shae stood on Thursday, but he wasn’t concerned about that.

He said he could see the area where he lives, which is surrounded by tall, green trees that were untouched by the flames, and he demanded to be allowed in.

“I don’t live in the area that was destroyed, so why can’t I get in?” Shae said moments after being turned away at the roadblock. “I don’t understand. I just don’t understand. Nothing’s burning anymore.”

Clearlake officials, though, approved a state of emergency declaration on Thursday, citing environmental dangers caused by the blaze. The designation will allow the city to seek financial help from the state and the federal government.

As a result, officials said, it might take some time to repopulate the evacuated areas due to the dangers left in the wake of the fire.

“There's a significant amount of dust particles that are contaminants that we don't want our folks to be in... So, there are a lot of steps to repopulation of any community and the No. 1 issue is the safety of those folks getting in and out,” Lake County Fire Protection District Chief Willie Sapeta said during a Thursday night update in Clearlake City Council Chambers.

“We're going to have resources there for the next few days — fire equipment coming in and out and so we will keep you posted. We will do (repopulation) incrementally as those areas become safe. We will do our best to get those areas reestablished and repopulated,” he added.

The fire erupted Wednesday afternoon at Sixth Avenue and Cache Street. As of Thursday night, it had scorched 83 acres and was between 35% and 40% contained.

“These are stark numbers for what was a relatively short fire in a small area. It was quite damaging,” Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said during Thursday’s update.

The fire’s cause remains under investigation.

About 1,500 students and 200 staff were evacuated Wednesday from five schools that serve families in the Clearlake and Lower Lake areas. They will be closed on Friday.

Deep cleanings are being done of the schools, which are expected to reopen on Monday.

The majority of the destroyed homes were in two mobile home parks on the south side of Dam Road, Clearlake City Manager Alan Flora said. Another 10 to 15 homes on the north side of the road were also destroyed.

Creekside Mobile Home Park was destroyed and at least three units were destroyed at Cache Creek Mobile Home Park. Also destroyed was at least one building on property that separates the two mobile home parks.

Officials have notified 51 homeowners of their property losses, Flora said.

And some 712 residents remain evacuated as agencies continue to clear the affected neighborhoods of debris, downed power lines and hazardous materials.

“Parts of the city of Clearlake will remain under evacuation for at least a few days while cleanup continues,” Sheriff Martin said. “There was pretty extensive damage done to homes in the city’s jurisdiction, so it will be a few days before everyone can go home.”

He said as of Thursday there were still some hot spots, “and we want to make sure all of that is taken care of as well.”

There have been no formal missing person reports filed, and no fatalities, he added.

‘They won’t let us in’

By Thursday morning, all activity revolved around the short stretch of Dam Road. In other parts of the city normalcy kicked in and some streets that had been closed at the onset of the blaze were reopened.

Sitting in his pickup, Shae shook his head in frustration after being denied access to his home off Lake Street, where he’s lived about five years. And with no other choice, he returned to the nearby Walmart parking lot that had become a waiting place for homeowners eager to return to their properties.

“They won’t let us in,” he said to anyone who’d listen, though it appeared his message went ignored.

Most people remained in their vehicles and could be seen using their phones or reading books.

But Kyle Molan, who was evacuated with his family, sat with them on folding chairs and picnic blankets in the parking lot.

With their cat, two dogs and three bunnies by their side, Molan, who kept busy by playing with his 4-year-old foster brother, acknowledged they were eager to get home to their six goats and four chickens that were left behind.

“They’re doing OK, I hope,” said Molan, 32. “Yeah, as far as we know.”

Other evacuees opted to spend their day driving around town, shopping and having breakfast or lunch.

Among them were Neal and Sheila Alley, who live just south of Dam and Lake. From the roadblock, they could see their neighborhood was fine and fears that kept them up all night were alleviated, said Neal Alley, 78.

More concerning was Sheila Alley’s asthma. Equipped with a single inhaler, she left behind all her other medical equipment when the couple was evacuated Wednesday.

“We left in such a hurry yesterday, we didn’t think to grab it,” said Sheila, 74.

About 18 miles away near Middletown, about 70 evacuees were at the evacuation center at Twin Pines Casino Thursday, officials said.

The shelter was originally at Kelseyville High School before moving to the casino Thursday morning and about 12 people who stayed at the school Wednesday night had relocated to the new site.

The people inside are “doing alright, all things considered,” said Nate Russell, American Red Cross disaster program manager for Lake, Mendocino and Colusa counties.

He added the shelter would be available indefinitely.

Dam Road on Thursday

Firefighters mostly vacated Dam Road, which evolved into a repair and recovery site mostly occupied by PG&E workers who said they would be present for days removing utility poles and downed power lines.

Large PG&E vehicles filled the narrow road and, on numerous occasions, drivers had to take turns passing each other because there was barely room to fit them all.

Hidden among the repair and emergency crews was the occasional homeowner who found their way to the scene by way of back roads they’ve learned about over the years. And in several instances, they found their homes standing and got some sense of relief that’s eluded those stuck at the roadblock.

Steve Tagle has lived in a mobile home at the Cache Creek park, two lots over from Creekside, for about 20 years. He said the area has never experienced what happened Wednesday, calling it “totally devastating.”

He was away from home when a friend notified him about the fire and fled with his two chihuahuas. Tagle made his way home Wednesday night along back roads and found his place intact.

“Oh yeah, God saved it. I was so happy,” the 67-year-old said.

In addition to the mobile homes that burned, the fire also destroyed water pumps that serve the community.

“It’ll be awhile before you get water in this park,” Tagle said. “It’s completely gone.”

The blaze continued to smolder and spot fires ignited throughout the day on Thursday, keeping firefighters on alert as they worked to strengthen containment lines.

Screenshot of Cache fire map as of Aug. 19, 2021.
Screenshot of Cache fire map as of Aug. 19, 2021.

“I’m pulling as many resources into this as I can,“ Sapeta said Thursday. ”I’m not letting my guard down.“

The fire occurred during a period of gusty winds that led the National Weather Service to issue a red flag warning across Northern California.

Breezy conditions picked up around the fire area Thursday afternoon after a mostly calm morning. Gusts were expected to reach 25 mph “at the very high end,” said Alex Dodd, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

He said the Clearlake area is one of the windier spots in the region, but conditions are nowhere near as bad as Wednesday, when a red flag warning was issued for much of Northern California.

Breezy afternoons will continue into the weekend, but wind speeds are expected to drop while humidity levels rise, Dodd said.

Staff writer Kathleen Coates contributed to this report.

You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at On Twitter @colin_atagi.

By the numbers

Authorities say it may take a bit longer before affected areas of the Cache fire are repopulated. The cause of the blaze remains under investigation. As of Thursday:

83 acres have been scorched by the Cache fire

40% containment reached

56 homes were destroyed

81 outbuildings were destroyed

158 vehicles were destroyed

712 people remain evacuated

72 of the evacuees are being cared for at the Twin Pines Casino

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