Lower Lake burns as Clayton fire forces evacuation of Clearlake residents

Wind-driven flames torched downtown buildings and homes, moving north to threaten Clearlake and prompting the evacuation of 4,000 people across southern Lake County.|

LOWER LAKE - One day after it started, a wildfire in southern Lake County exploded Sunday, driving flames into Lower Lake, where it destroyed homes and downtown businesses before it moved to the edge of Clearlake, the county's largest city, and prompted the evacuation of thousands more people.

An estimated 4,000 people were evacuated during the day as wind-driven flames revived fears of last year's nightmare, when three large wildfires ravaged this drought-withered region.

Firefighters, water tankers and helicopters arrayed against the blaze were unable to save commercial buildings along Lower Lake's Main Street, as the wind-driven flames advanced on a day when temperatures soared into the 90s.

Evacuees drove to safety through thick black smoke that darkened afternoon skies as air tankers dropped fire retardant on the downtown.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, who represents the area, said he was on a ridge near Lower Lake when the fire made its dramatic move as the wind picked up about 1 p.m.

“We looked out and saw this hellish plume of smoke,” he said. As the smoke turned from white to “dark as night,” McGuire said he and a group of law officers and fire officials knew that buildings were burning.

“It was an awful sight,” he said, recalling the massive Valley fire had swept through the area just a few miles to the west last year.

“The emotions are still raw. None of us thought we'd be here less than a year after the embers of the Valley fire were put out,” McGuire said.

The 3,000-acre Clayton fire, which broke out Saturday evening near Clayton Creek Road south of Lower Lake, was only 5 percent contained late Sunday night. Ten structures were on the official tally of destroyed buildings, but the damage, initially estimated at $1.5 million, was likely much worse, officials suggested.

“The fire behavior is intense,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Suzie Blankenship said.

Photographs and video posted throughout the evening on social media showed buildings and vehicles in flames and a thick column of smoke over Clear Lake.

With the messages were anxious advisories, many all too aware of the fatal toll the Valley fire exacted on local communities last year. It killed four people as it spread over 76,000 acres, destroying nearly 1,300 homes.

“Get out...get out now...major emergency disaster,” Patricia Britton tweeted.

“What a terrible scene,” the Mendocino County Sheriff's said on Twitter. “Our prayers are with you Lake County.”

The fire is burning in the populated swath of Lake County that avoided major harm in the trio of blazes - the Rocky, Jerusalem and Valley fires - that raged across the region last year, torching a combined 170,623 acres and destroying 2,078 structures.

The Clayton fire's growth prompted authorities to issue evacuation orders for up to 4,000 residents. Evacuees were directed to official shelters at Twin Pine Casino in Middletown and Kelseyville High School.

The Seventh Day Adventist Church in Kelseyville voluntarily opened to evacuees, as well. A shelter at Highlands Senior Center in Clearlake was closed when the fire caused a power failure.

Reports late Sunday said homes and businesses in a southern section of Clearlake were burning.

Highway 53 was closed from Highway 20 in the north down to Highway 29 at Lower Lake except for evacuating traffic.

The Clearlake evacuations included the area around St. Helena Clearlake Hospital, and 16 patients were transported to Sutter Lakeside Hospital on Highway 29 off Hill Road East.

Lake County offices will be open today, but the Konocti Unified School District schools will be closed.

Carolyn Dabney burst into tears when her husband Ted Dabney emerged from a sheriff's deputy's car at the Highlands Senior Services Center before it closed due to the blackout.

“Oh thank God,” she said, weeping and holding him tight.

The two were prepared to leave the house as soon as the evacuation order came. The car was packed with supplies, their two dogs and cat. They got a bit down the road from their Copsey Creek home in Lower Lake when Ted Dabney, 79, realized he forgot a piece of computer hardware with critical records.

He hopped out of the car and started trudging back toward his house. “All of a sudden the smoke just billows in everywhere and I knew if I walked in any further I'd die,” he said.

The fire turned a lazy Sunday morning for Phaedra Phelps at her Bonham Road property into a fight to save her home. At about 12:30 p.m., she made a five-minute drive to Walmart off Highway 53.

She was at the checkout cashier when a friend called and told her: “There's a giant plume of smoke in your area.”

At first, Phelps, 35, thought she was joking. Although Saturday night she watched firefighters put down a ridge fire where she normally rides horses, the fire looked like it was far away. But when she looked outside the scene Sunday reminded her of the smoke generated by an atomic bomb.

Phelps yelled at the cashier to hurry up because “that fire looks like it's at my house.”

Friends met Phelps and helped her move most of her 10 horses to a ranch as the fire began creeping across her property. The rest of her menagerie - one horse, three goats, four dogs and six cats - stayed at the house with her.

“My daddy bought this house for me 18 years ago,” said Phelps, the fiscal officer for the Elem Indian Colony Pomo Tribe. “I'm staying here. This is my home. Unless my home is on fire I'm not going anywhere.”

She helped about 18 firefighters work against the blaze, which she said came “within a couple of yards” of her home.

In Clearlake, Gary Logoteta, pastor of the Crossroads Church, said his congregation was “praying to God to keep the fire away from people.”

The high temperature reached 99 degrees in Clearlake on Sunday, with heat and wind feeding the fire's growth.

Additional firefighters and equipment from all over Northern California were being dispatched to the blaze Sunday. It was one of the state's top firefighting priorities, according to McGuire.

Cal Fire said 1,044 firefighters were on the ground Sunday, supported by six air tankers, seven helicopters, 22 bulldozers and 22 water tenders.

Sonoma County fire officials Sunday evening sent about 15 engines and about 20 firefighters from throughout the county to Lake County following a state fire call for immediate help.

Gold Ridge Fire Chief Dan George, who coordinates local firefighter strike teams to out-of-area fires, also was headed to the blaze as part of a fire management team.

Rough terrain and thick brush have made the blaze difficult to fight, along with the impact of a prolonged drought, Blankenship said. “We've hit the critical point where all the fuels are dry,” she said.

Officials said the cause was under investigation.

Some Lower Lake residents were evacuated for the second time in a week - either from the Canyon fire, which burned 14 acres, or the Kugelman fire, which burned 45 acres south of Anderson Marsh State Historic Park. Both of those fires are being investigated as possible arsons.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner. You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205.

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