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.