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Hopkins fire burns to western shore of Lake Mendocino; 30% contained

Firefighters battling the Hopkins fire in Mendocino County for the second straight day Monday brought it to 30% containment, but the area was still too hazardous to let most residents return or to get an accurate assessment of the number of homes destroyed.

A Cal Fire damage assessment team is expected to arrive Tuesday to begin reviewing the devastation left by a 257-acre wildfire, which burned all the way to to the Lake Mendocino shoreline.

Until now, Cal Fire officials have only said that the blaze threatened 200 structures before destroying at least 10 Sunday afternoon in a hillside residential area of Calpella, an unincorporated community about 6 miles north of Ukiah.

Access to the burn area was expected to remain closed into Tuesday morning as firefighters continue to expand containment.

“Although we’re making significant progress, the area is still extremely hazardous for everybody,” Cal Fire Mendocino Unit Chief George Gonzalez said in a Facebook update around 5 p.m. Monday. “So, in order to maintain safety, we’re keeping all locals out for the time being. But you are our No. 1 priority, and we will let you in the second we get a chance.”

The wildfire burned to the northwestern shore of Lake Mendocino and scorched portions of the reservoir that have dried up amid a historic drought.

Flames charred the lake’s northwest shore and wiped out signs, picnic tables and a restroom in a recreational area southeast of Marina Drive and along the eastern edge of the hillside that caught fire.

Just beyond the damage, along the beach are swaths of dried vegetation growing in an area once under water. And within that area, near the northernmost point burned, is a patch of vegetation scorched by a spot fire.

“Even though it’s kind of marshy, it still burned,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Patricia Austin said Monday, as firefighters continued to work along the edge of the reservoir.

“Water used to be something we could count on” as a barrier against a fire’s spread, Austin said. “Now it’s not a dead stop.”

The cause of the fire, which was reported around 2 p.m. on Sunday between Moore and East Hopkins streets, is unknown. Cal Fire is investigating, Battalion Chief Drew Rhoads said.

The fire burned north and east on Sunday, swallowing up dried-out vegetation as it ran up a 1,000-foot ridge and down the other side toward the reservoir.

Lake Mendocino Park Manager Poppy Lozoff said dam infrastructure at the south end of the lake has not been threatened by the flames. She said water releases into the upper reaches of the Russian River were continuing as scheduled.

“You get used to seeing the landscape in a specific way, and (now) it looks like something foreign, not even something from Earth,” Lake Mendocino Park Manager Poppy Lozoff.

The fire did cause significant damage to the Pomo recreational day-use area off Marina Drive on the lake’s northern end.

Trees near the site were still smoldering on Monday, as were creosote logs along the edges of roadways and parking areas intended to keep vehicles away from the reservoir’s edge.

Lozoff, who had been prevented from getting to the lake on Sunday because of a fatal crash that closed Highway 101 outside Willits, said driving in Monday past devastated homes and charred woods was a painful, unsettling experience.

The landscape around Marina Drive is very steep and has been subject to mudslides and road washouts over the years. Now that it’s burned and blackened, it’s almost unrecognizable, she said.

“It’s overwhelming, you know? It kind of takes your breath away,” Lozoff said. “I started here in 2010 as a ranger, so I used to patrol all over all the time. You get used to seeing the landscape in a specific way, and (now) it looks like something foreign, not even something from Earth.”

The speed with which the fire moved up the draw parallel to Marina Drive was “unbelievable,” she said, and reinforces how much more needs to be done to keep pace with the growing threat of wildfire.

She said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the reservoir, continues to make improvements, like recently burying power lines, “but every fire brings a new lesson, so it feels like we’re always behind the curve. We’re never able to get out in front of it and feel fully prepared, because fire is so dynamic.”

Mostly, Lozoff said she realizes that the damage to the lake, at this point, is nothing compared to the losses of neighbors, many of whom walk their dogs at the lake or wave from their cars in passing.

“Our thoughts are really with the community,” she said. “As a federal entity, when these disasters hit, it’s hard to integrate and reach out. But I know all of our staff really values the community and, you know, we see the impacts and we miss our neighbors, and we hope they’ll be back soon.”

Overnight into Monday morning, firefighters took advantage of cooler temperatures and higher humidity, allowing them to make “good progress” as they worked to secure a perimeter around the blaze, Cal Fire said.

“We have a line around the whole fire,” Rhoads said, noting that the containment estimate would increase when firefighters were confident the blaze would not escape the perimeter.

“If one little spark were to cross the line, it would be off to the races again,“ Mitch Bosna, a Cal Fire spokesman, said.

But with winds expected to pick up Monday evening, firefighters remained on high alert, according to Mitch Bosna, a Cal Fire spokesman.

"We’re dealing with very low fuel-moisture levels and very low relative humidity and a fire that is still active on the interior portions,“ he said. ”So the potential lies there. If one little spark were to cross the line, it would be off to the races again.“

Cal Fire said there were no injuries, but a firefighter was treated for overexertion on Sunday.

While authorities allowed some residents to return to their homes Sunday night, a mandatory evacuation order remains in place for parts of Calpella, including the area of Road 144 to the 50000 block of East Side Calpella Road.

An evacuation center was set up at the Mendocino County Office of Education in Ukiah and a large animal shelter was staged at the city’s Redwood Empire Fair Grounds.

As firefighters worked on expanding containment Monday, Mirella Palmeria stood at the roadblock on Moore Street waiting for a Mendocino County sheriff’s deputy to bring her antidepressant medication she left behind when evacuating Sunday afternoon.

She was joined by her brother, Osvaldo Palmeria, who lives in Ukiah. The pair remained in good spirits Monday knowing that her home on Cortina Place was safe, since it was in the opposite direction of the fire’s path.

Translating for his sister who speaks only Spanish, Osvaldo Palmeria said the fire was a major wake-up call for his sibling.

“New adventures. All her life, she’s never had an experience like that,” he said. “At the moment, she was like, ‘How can that happen to me?’ It’s never happened to her.”

She lives near a third sibling who did not evacuate. They said he retrieved the medication and handed it to the deputy Monday afternoon.

“She’s happy,” Osvaldo Palmeria said.

Mike Ammerman has lived on East Side Calpella Road for about 32 years. He said he couldn’t remember the area ever experiencing a fire like the Hopkins fire.

His home is south of the burn area and also was spared. Still, he was evacuated and returned to the site Monday in the hopes of being allowed back in.

Ammerman is convinced the Hopkins fire is a sign of things to come.

“There’s going to be more,” he said. “We’re not done yet, and we’re not even in October.”

You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at colin.atagi@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @colin__atagi.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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