Firefighting ranks swell on Mendocino Complex fires, homes lost in Scotts Valley
Hundreds of additional firefighters streamed into Lake County on Tuesday in a bolstered effort to prevent two stubborn wildfires from burning into communities on the west and north shore of Clear Lake, where thousands of residents have fled under evacuation orders.
Firefighters faced 100-degree temperatures and afternoon winds of up to 15 mph that swelled the Ranch fire outside of Upper Lake and the River fire west of Kelseyville to a combined 80,408 acres by Tuesday evening, up from about 68,000 acres Monday.
Much of that new growth has been in the Mendocino National Forest, where an estimated 30,000 acres has burned in rough terrain and remote stands of timber.
“We've got some successes in certain locations, and we've got a lot of work to do in others,” said Cal Fire spokeswoman Tricia Austin, whose own home in Lakeport is surrounded on three sides by fire.
Homes and structures were destroyed in Scotts Valley on the outskirts of Lakeport, but those losses weren't officially reported Tuesday. That tally remained at seven homes and three outbuildings, Cal Fire said. Containment was at 18 percent.
Austin attributed the progress to higher humidity levels, and the arrival of an additional 613 firefighters Tuesday, bringing the total personnel on the fire to 2,700. Up to 12,000 structures remain threatened and 14,000 people have been evacuated and remain unable to return home.
One of those is Carolyn Hawley, a retired concert pianist who left her home in Nice on Sunday afternoon.
“I'm just very worried,” said Hawley, who is in her 80s. “I live in a home surrounded by an oak and pine forest.”
Sheriff's officials went through Nice on Sunday “screaming at us to get out fast,” Hawley recalled, so she had little time to take more than a few possessions and her cat, Lily.
Highway 20 along the north and east shore of Clear Lake was choked with traffic “creeping like a snail,” but Hawley made it to a friend's house in Clearlake Oaks. Most of her possessions remain at risk.
“Three musical compositions I'd written. My medicine. My clothes. I left everything there,” she said. “I'm so scared.”
Lake County Supervisor Jim Steele toured the area Tuesday with fire officials and said he saw large plumes of smoke rising from behind Hogback Ridge rimming Nice. It seemed deep enough in the national forest that the town didn't appear in immediate danger.
“I felt very encouraged,” Steele said. “All we need is some luck with the weather to give these resources time to get on top of some of this spotting. If that happens, then the next two or three days is going to a make a big difference for this whole thing.”
The two fires were sparked Friday afternoon in eastern Mendocino County. By 7 p.m. Tuesday, the Ranch fire, threatening Upper Lake and Nice, had grown to 52,000 acres. The River fire menacing Lakeport had swelled to nearly 29,000 acres.
A separate fire ignited east of Covelo on Tuesday afternoon about 3:30 p.m. It burned about 900 acres by nightfall and prompted evacuation orders for residents along the middle fork of the Eel River near Black Butte River Ranch. The blaze was not connected to the larger fire complex burning 60 miles to the south, Cal Fire said.
Firefighters used dozer lines and slurry drops to keep the Ranch fire out of Upper Lake, home to about 1,000 people. Highway 20 was being used as a fuel break to keep the fires from merging. Their frontlines were separated by about 6 miles Tuesday.
About 4 p.m. in Lakeport, at Sheng's strawberry business at the intersection of Highways 29 and 175, dark smoke rose from a nearby ridge.
The area burned during the weekend, said Kirk DeFranco, a longtime Little Lake volunteer firefighter who was monitoring the intersection to make sure evacuees didn't return to the closed area.
“About this time of day every day the wind starts howling,” DeFranco said. “The terrain is so rough you're not going to have engines or walk a hand crew in.”
South of Highway 175 was another key stand for firefighters hoping to stop the River fire from spreading farther south. Helicopters made dozens of water drops on the perimeter of the blaze, dipping their buckets into Clear Lake and drenching the hillsides. Cows grazed in nearby pastures, and orchards were loaded with pears nearing harvest.
Evacuation orders for some areas of Kelseyville, Finley, the Big Valley Rancheria and Potter Valley were lifted, allowing residents to return home.
Roads emptied of regular traffic were filled with an army of utility contractors, road workers, private fire crews, and fire engines and water tenders from all over the western U.S., including Montana and Oregon.