Mendocino Complex fire left behind California burn zone without any parallel

Authorities taking steps to prevent erosion as residents ponder rebuilding The scar is more than 700 square miles.

Extending north of Clear Lake across nearly 1 million acres of mountainous terrain folded into steep slopes and canyons, the Mendocino National Forest has long served as both playground and sanctuary, an expanse of wildland cut by boulder-strewn streams and covered in chaparral, forest and meadows.

But much of that once lush landscape is now bare and blackened, a scorched shadow left by flames that ran roughshod over eastern Mendocino County and northern Lake County in two separate fires sparked on the same day in late July.

Other wildfires have shocked and devastated California of late, including the North Bay's 2017 infernos and November's Camp fire in Butte County, the deadliest, most destructive wildfire ever recorded in the state.

But the Mendocino Complex fire remains the largest in California history, blackening more than 700 square miles of land - an area so large that if placed on a map of the urban Bay Area it would span from San Francisco to the outskirts of the East Bay and down the peninsula to South Bay, blotting out a region home to millions of people.

But because it burned in rural territory, the Mendocino Complex fire destroyed relatively few homes - 157 - along with 123 other structures. A Utah firefighter was killed in August battling the Ranch fire, the larger of the two blazes. The causes remain under investigation.

It took more than seven weeks to contain the fire complex, at an estimated cost of more than $200 million. Three months later, the scars on the land have just begun to heal. While impressive from ground, the extent of the burn zone is overwhelming when witnessed aloft. Ridge after fire-scorched ridge stretches to the horizon.

“It is shocking when you're up in the air. It is just huge,” said Mendocino National Forest Supervisor Supervisor Ann Carlson. “Even when you're driving around it, you're like, ‘Wow. This is still the same fire over here, too.'”

Some isolated areas of green have begun sprouting, but vast swaths of the landscape are still barren of plantlife. Charred trees stand on some hillsides or lie like toothpicks along dirt roadways that snake without any cover across the naked ground.

More than a quarter-million acres of national forest lands remain closed to the public. The hazards for visitors include the thousands of standing dead trees and stumps, with plans underway to cut and salvage some of the still-valuable timber. Exposed soils on steep grades and along watersheds also present risks of slides and harmful runoff into the region's waterways.

The health of Clear Lake, the environmental and economic heart of Lake County, could be at risk, said Lake County Water Resources Director David Cowan.

“We haven't seen enough run-off to know what the impact is going to be,” he said.

A nuclear sunset, highlights charred douglas fir and sugar pines Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018 in the Mendocino National Forest. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2018
A nuclear sunset, highlights charred douglas fir and sugar pines Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018 in the Mendocino National Forest. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2018

The unmeasured toll

The two fires that made up the 459,123-acre inferno began July 27 in eastern Mendocino County about a dozen miles and an hour apart.

Flames pushed east into Lake County, racing across rural areas to threaten communities on the western and northern shores of Clear Lake, including, Lakeport, the county seat.

“The sky was so dark, it was like Mordor,” said Cheryl Carr, who was powerless to save her home off White Canyon Road north of Upper Lake. Her sister and her brother also lost their homes on the same property.

Still, in a county besieged by wildfire like few others in California over the past three years, some Lake County residents said they were surprised the destruction was not much worse.

“The Ranch fire was so giant, but I feel like we really dodged a bullet,” said Carr, a former California Conservation Corps firefighter.

Many of the thousands forced to evacuate ultimately had homes to which they could return, though the intervening days and nights of uncertainty and upended schedules took their own economic and emotional toll.

“We had a lot of people in the local assistance center looking for food, basics, anything to help them get by to the end of the month,” said Lake County Supervisor Jim Steele, whose north county district includes much of the fire zone. “So that was a big hurdle as well.”

The smaller River fire was contained after 26 days at 48,920 acres. It burned through almost 30,000 acres of the federally operated Cow Mountain Recreation Management Area, forcing managers to indefinitely close the southern part of the popular site for off-road vehicle enthusiasts.

The Ranch fire continued burning several more weeks, spreading across public lands to menace rural areas in two other Central Valley counties - Glenn and Colusa - a straight-line distance of roughly 40 miles from the fire's origin, and a much longer drive on winding, smoke-filled roads.

The property shared by Carr and her siblings at the edge of the national forest burned almost completely, driving out abundant wildlife that has yet to return. Carr said she's waiting to see which trees survive. Many are browned if not charred. She has purchased 200 pounds of vetch to sew as ground cover and obtained a trailer full of straw wattles to absorb runoff.

To rebuild or not?

The decision of whether or not to rebuild has been a dilemma for many, though Lake County supervisors eased the path for some last month by allowing replacement dwellings as small as 360 square feet, making construction feasible for those like Carr and most of her neighbors who had no fire insurance.

Machiko Shimada, who lived amid nearly 80 acres of timber off High Valley Road north of Clearlake Oaks, said her and her husband's decision to rebuild depends on a host of considerations. Those include the degree to which their community comes back, the likelihood of continued natural hazards, like landslides, and the potential for reforestation where now there are just “lots of burned sticks standing up.”

“I would like to rebuild something,” said Shimada, 65, a math instructor at Mendocino Community College. “But again, I have to think really of what it's like to live there.”

There's also the matter of residing in a place, she said, “where you're always aware of fire.”

Lake County has been through eight major infernos in the past three years, burning over half the county's acreage.

Shimada and her husband put in 30 years of work to dutifully reduce the fuel loads around their place, thinning brush and creating a space they thought could be defended against flames.

But not against the Ranch fire, where firefighters struggled to find places to make stands.

“That country is so unforgiving, there's just no place to put lines in safely,” said longtime fire official Jim Mackensen, who served as a Forest Service spokesman on the fire. “It was just so tough to get in there.”

When the blaze was finally contained Sept. 18, it was the result of a large-scale effort setting back fires and a broad line bulldozed through the Snow Mountain Wilderness, Carlson said.

“It would have kept going,” she said. “We tried to catch it south of the wilderness, but it was way too active. We didn't have enough resources. And the access was tough.”

A long, difficult rehab

The same steep and remote terrain are now complicating the massive rehabilitation needed on public lands.

About three-quarters of the property burned in the Mendocino Complex fires was federally managed land, mostly national forest but also Bureau of Land Management holdings on Cow Mountain and in the Indian Valley/Walker Ridge area on the eastern edge of Lake County.

The closures in those areas extend to trails and several camping and picnic grounds like Letts Lake, Mill Valley, Penny Pines, Bear Creek and the south shore of popular Lake Pillsbury - probably until at least late spring or early summer, Carlson said.

The Forest Service still has thousands of trees to fell and sell as salvage timber, much of it reclaimed along a 300-mile road network laid bare by the fires, Carlson said.

The absence of plant and forest cover is a concern for soil stability and storm runoff, posing the risk that tons of unleashed sediment could wind up in Clear Lake, which already has elevated levels of sediment and certain nutrients.

Concerns include clogging of intake equipment for seven commercial water suppliers around the lake, degradation of water quality and creation of conditions favorable to harmful algae blooms.

“We're concerned about the amount of erosion that could take place,” said Cowan, the Lake County water official.

Public agencies are scrambling to get ahead of the heaviest part of the rainy season with erosion-control measures they hope will avert debris flows and mudslides, and keep heavy soil loads out of streams.

More than 325 miles of year-round streams, plus seasonal water bodies, lace the Ranch fire burn zone. In almost half of that area, the burn severity was deemed moderate or high, according to a postfire assessment.

On Cow Mountain, 82 percent of what burned was in the high-severity category, BLM spokeswoman Serena Baker said.

“What we're trying to do is implement all of our emergency stabilization and restoration work through the winter, because the concern is about sedimentation moving off that area and impacting Clear Lake,” said Ukiah BLM Field Manager Amanda James.

Greg Dills, project manager for the Lake County Resource Conservation District, is overseeing remediation efforts nearby, mostly in the Scotts Valley area.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board provided a $600,000 grant to help prioritize work and get erosion control crews out in the field in recent weeks.

Testing of water quality so far hasn't detected any particular problem spots, but the rain has only just begun, Dills said.

Added up with the groundwork needed to reach and aid private landowners - many of whom have dispersed after the fires -and the scale of what lies ahead appears overwhelming, officials said.

Angela DePalma, the invasive species coordinator for the Lake County Water Resources Department, has been busy monitoring water samples after some of the early-season storms. She has taken heart from the intermittent arrival of wet weather and the signs of regrowth just now beginning to crop up in the fire zone.

“There is hope,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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