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Fires grow in Mendocino County, pushing east; evacuation ordered for Lakeport outskirts

LAKEPORT - Advancing flames on the rugged eastern flank of Cow Mountain glowed above Lakeport on Saturday night from one of two fires that erupted Friday afternoon in Mendocino County and burned across 14,000 acres into Lake County, threatening communities along Clear Lake's northwestern shore.

As people there fled their homes, to the southeast, a 150-acre wildfire destroyed at least six structures in a rural community along Lake Berryessa's south shore in Napa County, drawing significant air support from California's firefighting force, taxed by 14 major fires burning across the state, including a deadly 84,000-acre fire in Shasta County.

On Saturday night, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Lake, Mendocino and Napa counties.

The River and Ranch fires ignited 14 miles apart Friday in Mendocino County near Hopland and Potter Valley, respectively, and each pushed eastward into Lake County on Saturday, displacing about 3,000 people across the two counties. The evacuations included blocks within Lakeport city limits and the outskirts of the county seat. Sutter Lakeside Hospital in Lakeport evacuated its 13 patients to other facilities.

Overnight, wildland firefighters hoped to gain a foothold around the blazes, each just 5 percent contained. They burned through rugged terrain with thick, dry brush. Some of the affected areas had not burned for years.

Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said the River and Ranch fires - which Cal Fire is calling the Mendocino Complex fire - pose significant threats to residents in western Lake County. He has deployed law enforcement officers to patrol evacuated areas throughout the night and be on guard to help usher more people to safety if needed. Late Saturday, electricity was knocked out or cut across Mendocino and Lake counties, affecting tens of thousands of people.

“These communities are absolutely in danger, these evacuation orders are dead serious,” said Martin, who sent his own family out of the area to safety.

Teams of firefighters were preparing to defend homes on Lakeport's western outskirts should the 9,000-acre River fire burn into Lakeport, the most populated area threatened by the fire.

Lakeport Fire protection District Chief Doug Hutchison, who was stationed with several crews in the Parkside subdivision, said they didn't have enough resources to attack the fire, which was heading slowly down Cow Mountain through the Scotts Creek drainage, but they were ready to defend the houses.

Down the street from the fire crews, Mike Conser, 47, had returned to the subdivision to get a few more valuables and to let his chickens out of the pen “to let them go where they need to go.” Conser said he hoped a large clearing between his neighborhood and the fire would provide a fire break.

“But then again, look what happened to Santa Rosa,” Conser said, referring to October's Tubbs fire that burned from Calistoga into Santa Rosa. “I never would have thought that would have happened in Santa Rosa.”

To the north, the 5,000-acre Ranch fire that started off Highway 20 near Potter Valley also made an eastward run, leading to evacuations in rural communities outside Upper Lake, including Scotts Valley, Bachelor Valley, Witter Springs and Elk Mountain Road in Lake County as well as evacuations in Potter Valley and the Blue Lakes area.

In a community of about 120 residents along Elk Mountain Road west of Upper Lake, tribal members of the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake went door-to-door ensuring people were following evacuation orders and help anyone who needed it. They left signs to let emergency personnel know which homes were empty.

Many residents were preparing to spend Saturday night at the Upper Lake community center, where children played as tribal members laid out sleeping bags and brought in food. Outside, dark ash fell from the sky.

“As long as our families are good and safe that's all that matters to me,” said Danielle Jackson, 38.

The Lake County Jail was prepared to evacuate if needed, and several elder care facilities have already been emptied, according to Supervisor Rob Brown. The shelter at Mountain Vista Middle School in Kelseyville had reached capacity with 135 people and they were opening up additional space for evacuees at the Twin Pine Casino in Middletown.

“I've seen a lot of fires in my 58 years and the last three years have changed my opinion on how fires happen,” Brown said. “I think the sheriff is taking the right measures by getting people out. Fires move pretty quick these days.”

The River fire had destroyed at least one residence and one outbuilding. From its origin point on Old River Road on the east bank of the Russian River, it had spread south and east, resulting in the closure of Highway 175 between Hopland and its intersection with Highway 29 in Lakeport.

Authorities ordered evacuations in a wide swath from the 8000 block of Old river Road south to Highway 175. The area includes acres of vineyards that are preparing for grape harvest. Fetzer Vineyards stopped its bottling line at 3:30 p.m. Friday and sent its approximately 200 employees home shortly thereafter, said Cindy DeVries, chief operating officer for Fetzer.

The blaze threatened 300 structures, including the UC Berkeley Hopland Research and Extension Center and the Hopland Rancheria and the tribe's Sho-Ka-Wah Casino off Highway 175. The casino has been closed since 8 p.m. Friday, said Abel Solano, security manager for the casino.

“It's extreme fire behavior,” said Cal Fire spokeswoman Tricia Austin of the River fire.

At the Hopland Farms gas station, Lakeport residents Kelley and Shane Boss watched an ominous massive plume of smoke growing over a charred Cow Mountain. With Highway 175 closed, the couple were debating what to do and calling friends and family in Lakeport to make sure all were safe and getting out.

“I think we better stay far away from it,” said Kelley Boss, who has lived in Lakeport for 23 years.

At the gas pump, Loretta Bernards, 50, of Redwood Valley said the dark plumes of smoke clouding the skies were causing flashbacks for people like her who evacuated during the October firestorm. The 2017 Redwood Valley fire killed nine people and burned hundreds of homes.

Bernards said she's been calling friends in the evacuation areas and urging them to leave and offering to house them.

“You can't outrun a fire, you just have to evacuate,” Bernards said.

Back over the mountain in Lakeport, at the Clearlake Club Saloon & Sports Bar on Main Street, owner Lorna Higdon said her bar was about half full Saturday afternoon as customers were glued to social media updates to see if they were going to be required to evacuate from the city of 5,000 residents.

“The customers are making their plans if they have to leave,” Higdon said. Gas stations were more crowded than usual, she added.

Though Lake County has suffered through numerous wildfires in recent years, Lakeport has not been affected. Martin, the sheriff, said they had been bracing for fire on the western side of the county.

“You never like to see this in your own community,” Martin said. “I grew up in Lakeport, seeing it come down the mountain toward the city - that meets the definition of hitting close to home.”

Firefighting resources in Mendocino and Lake counties nearly doubled Saturday, including 817 personnel, 27 hand crews, 22 dozers and six helicopters. Santa Rosa Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal said Cal Fire's largest air tankers had also been flying over the area Saturday and making fire retardant drops wherever possible given some areas of poor visibility.

“The Lake County side is absolutely inundated in smoke,” Lowenthal said.

Seven firefighters have been injured battling the blazes, Cal Fire said early Saturday, with four of them treated for heat-related illness.

Fifty-four miles to the southeast, in Napa County, John Ehrenfeld had been smelling smoke from the Lake and Mendocino county fires, but sometime after 4 p.m. the stench drew him outside and he saw a wall of flames and thick black smoke pouring from a hill east of his home in the Berryessa Highlands, an unincorporated community of about 200 homes on Lake Berryessa's south shore.

“I ran up the hill to see what help we could be and we saw two homes on fire, completely engulfed,” Ehrenfeld said.

By nightfall, authorities reopened roads in the community and the fire was at 150 acres and 10 percent contained.

“We basically have the same strategy for every fire: Heavy ground and air resources just to give it the most aggressive attack possible - and this was no different,” Cal Fire Division Chief Mike Wilson said. “They added a lot of resources early on because it's so heavily populated.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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