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Fast-moving Jerusalem fire sweeps through Lake County woodlands, prompting evacuation

With the massive Rocky fire largely under control in eastern Lake County, a new wildland blaze flared nearby Sunday, driven by wind through rugged, tinder-dry terrain and threatening areas southeast of Lower Lake, officials and witnesses said.

The Jerusalem fire, first reported at about 3:45 p.m. Sunday, grew from 100 acres to 5,000 acres as of Monday morning with no containment, reminiscent of the Rocky fire’s appalling spread under similar conditions, Cal Fire said. The cause is under investigation.

As of Monday morning, 50 structures were threatened and 150 people were evacuated, said Paul Lowenthal, Cal Fire spokesman.

Firefighters, aircraft and other resources were being transferred from the Rocky fire to the new blaze located in Jerusalem Valley, where a mandatory evacuation was ordered Sunday in some of the same areas vacated during the Rocky fire, which broke out July 29 and was 85 percent contained by Sunday night, Cal Fire said.

The new wildfire was threatening homes on the edge of the Hidden Valley Lake community and prompting some residents to leave ahead of an official evacuation, said Richard Pritchard, director of golf at the Hidden Valley Lake Golf Course.

“It looks pretty bad right now,” he said Sunday night.

Pritchard said the blaze was burning just over the ridge to the east of the golf course and “appears to be moving fast.”

The wind had shifted, blowing southwest toward the Hidden Valley Lake subdivision off Highway 29 south of Lower Lake, Pritchard said. Residents were driving out with animals loaded in livestock trailers and also pulling out their travel trailers ahead of an official evacuation, he said.

Hidden Valley Lake has about 5,500 residents surrounding the gated community’s 102-acre lake.

A mandatory evacuation was issued for the Jerusalem Valley area east of Spruce Grove Road and Jerusalem Valley Road was closed to all traffic at the road as fire and emergency vehicles were working in the area, Cal Fire said.

The fire sent a massive cloud of smoke into the sky Sunday afternoon that was visible from many parts of Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties.

Cal Fire spokeswoman Olga Leitch said she had no information about the number of firefighters working the new blaze nor any count of the structures threatened. Fire officials were bracing for the prospect of “erratic winds” overnight, with winds from 15 to 22 mph on ridges and half as strong in valleys, according to a radio dispatcher’s report.

Monday’s forecast for Lower Lake calls for sunny skies with winds about 15 mph from the west and southwest.

All evacuations related to the Rocky fire had been lifted Saturday and it was “absolutely” helpful to have so many assets available from that fire to fight Sunday’s new outbreak, which was burning through heavy timber and brush on rugged terrain, Leitch said.

She said it was possible the two fires would grow together.

The Rocky fire did not expand on Sunday from its 69,636-acre footprint and was burning in only one area, well away from the Jerusalem fire, Leitch said. Firefighters increased containment around the Rocky fire to 85 percent by Sunday night, up from 70 percent Saturday.

Veteran firefighters have expressed amazement at the larger fire’s behavior. In five hours on Aug. 1, starting about 4 p.m., the fire made a 20,000-acre run through the driest Lake County woodlands ever measured by Cal Fire in the past century, officials said.

Cal Fire said an evacuation center for the Jerusalem fire would remain open at Middletown High School. Animals can be taken to a temporary shelter set up at 6885 Old Highway 53 in Clearlake.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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