Firefighting ranks swell on Mendocino Complex fires, homes lost in Scotts Valley

The firefighting force swelled to 2,700 on the Ranch and River fires Tuesday as the two stubborn blazes expanded to more than 80,000 acres. Several Lake County communities remain in peril.|

Mendocino Complex fires

Acres burned: 80,000

People evacuated: 14,000

Towns threatened: Lakeport, Upper Lake, Nice, Lucerne, Kelseyville, Blue Lakes

Structures threatened: 12,000

Number of firefighters: 2,700

Structures burned: 7 homes, 3 outbuilding (officials expect these numbers to increase)

Containment: 18 percent

Figures updated 11:30 pm, July 31

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.

Cal Fire officials warned residents at a Lake County Board of Supervisors meeting early Tuesday that while much remained to be done, additional gains on the fires were expected today.

Tuesday brought some good news to members of the Upper Lake Rancheria, who thought many of their homes were lost late Sunday into Monday, when the Ranch fire made its biggest run. The homes were saved by firefighters, and an extensive fire line was cut around the reservation.

“We did lose one trailer, but all the other homes are intact,” Tony Arroyo, tribal administrator of the Habemotolel Pomo of Upper Lake. “Firefighters did a wonderful job.”

Other Lake County residents were still awaiting word on the fate of their homes.

Nancy and Gary Brier lost their Cobb house in the 2015 Valley fire. Last fall they lost their rented Santa Rosa home to the Tubbs fire. Now their Main Street home in Upper Lake is threatened by the Ranch fire. They bought it 12 years ago and restored the 110-year-old farm house into a retreat, where their teen daughter Lauren was raised and where the front porch offered a comfortable place to watch the world pass by.

“The Upper Lake house is everything to us,” Nancy Brier said.

The family was en route to the home for a vacation when the fire started and they were turned back. A map they were checking appeared to show Upper Lake had burned Monday into Tuesday. A flurry of calls led them to learn that wasn't the case.

“I felt like I was going to throw up,” Nancy Brier said. “We're hanging on, minute by minute trying to get information.”

While structural loses have been limited, impacts on the area's farm sector are less clear.

The River fire's spread on the south side of Lakeport and Highway 175 brought it close to an area known for its pear and walnut crop, staples of Lake County before they were eclipsed by wine grapes. In 2016, the orchards of Big Valley, Finley and rural Kelseyville turned out a pear harvest worth $21 million.

The fires and evacuation of the area, where packing sheds had been gearing up for high season, could jeopardize fruit ripening on the trees, which were set for harvest in the coming days and weeks.

“There's millions of dollars of pears on those trees right now that need to come down,” Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown said.

David Thiessen, sales manager at Scully Packing Co. in Finley said Bartlett pears would not be ready until next week, allowing some time to knock out the fires and resume harvest work.

The fires also represent a blow to the county's tourism industry, one centered largely on Clear Lake.

On the final day of July, with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees, the freshwater destination would normally be busy with boaters, anglers and sunbathers. But with the northshore towns under evacuation orders, the lake was placid and quiet.

Melissa Fulton, chief executive of the Lake County Chamber of Commerce, said the basin allows smoke to clear quickly, but tourist traffic is typically slower to return.

As of Tuesday morning, three evacuation shelters were in operation, including one at Lower Lake High School that was at full capacity, with 460 occupants, according to Red Cross officials. Another 161 were staying at the Twin Pines Casino in Middletown, and Middletown High School had additional space for people and for pets.

Social Services Director Crystal Markytan said the county was exploring other options should evacuations be expanded. She hoped it would be possible to keep residents in-county but was also looking at potential shelter sites in Colusa and Napa counties.

In the mid-afternoon heat at Twin Pine Casino & Hotel, evacuees milled about in the parking looking after their dogs and cats. They hung towels from inside car windows to shield themselves from the sun and blasted the air conditioning of their ash-coated vehicles.

Rick Chambers, 55, of Upper Lake, and Ted Jones, 50, of Lakeport, worked together to set up a shade canopy next to a brick wall at the back of the casino's lot. Chambers, a baker at the Safeway in Lakeport, and his wife, Cindie, left their home on Elk Mountain Road on Sunday after the mandatory evacuations went into effect.

“We've got all kinds of blankets, tents, a generator,” Chambers said between sips of a Coors Light, pointing to a Toyota pickup with full trash bags covering the bed. “We got a lot of stuff that we didn't need, because we weren't thinking properly. You just don't think when you start seeing flames coming up over the other side of the hill and back around. We got out in a hurry.”

Jones, who does home remodeling, and his wife, Crystal, fled their home Saturday in two pickups - an older model Chevy, and a Dodge pulling a trailer with two Harleys and a dirt bike. He had time to grab childhood pictures of his kids, as well as the cat, a pet goat and three dogs who are now with a friend handling rescue animals.

“It's hard,” said Jones, who evacuated in about 20 minutes. “I've been up there 30 years, going on. I've got all my kids' stuff up there, and all I got was two boxes of pictures of them. I feel like I didn't have enough time to get anything. I don't know what we're going to do next.”

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza contributed reporting.

Mendocino Complex fires

Acres burned: 80,000

People evacuated: 14,000

Towns threatened: Lakeport, Upper Lake, Nice, Lucerne, Kelseyville, Blue Lakes

Structures threatened: 12,000

Number of firefighters: 2,700

Structures burned: 7 homes, 3 outbuilding (officials expect these numbers to increase)

Containment: 18 percent

Figures updated 11:30 pm, July 31

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