Mendocino Complex fires now largest in state history

The record-breaking 11-day-old blazes have burned more than 283,000 acres across Lake, Mendocino and Colusa counties and displaced tens of thousands of people. The flames currently threaten 11,300 structures.|

The ravenous Mendocino Complex fires, a pair of wildland blazes that have displaced tens of thousands of people and cut a path of destruction through three counties, had become the largest wildfire in modern California history, reaching 283,800 acres by Monday evening.

The Ranch fire, the larger of the two fires that make up the Mendocino Complex fires, grew to 235,000 acres Monday, Cal Fire officials said. Only 21 percent of the fire had been contained by nightfall.

To the southeast, the River fire remained in check Monday, scorching 48,800 acres, Cal Fire said. It was 58 percent contained.

For the past 11 days, the two fires have disrupted countless lives across a large stretch of Northern California. Smoke could be seen throughout the Bay Area on Monday and deep into the Central Valley as the northern flanks of the Ranch fire advanced deeper into the Mendocino National Forest, leveling woodland brush and conifers. Meanwhile, its southeastern arm threatened Lake County homes that were terrorized by forest fire only a month ago.

The fires have now destroyed 75 homes and ?68 other structures, though it was not clear if the increase resulted from new losses Monday or ongoing efforts to assess destruction from the fires that erupted July 27. Flames threatened 11,300 structures Monday, hampering efforts by county officials to transfer evacuees out of shelters established in local schools in time to make room for students scheduled to return to class next week.

“It’s a stressful time for everybody, sleep deprivation, smoke and everything else,” said Lake County Supervisor Bob Brown. “That Ranch fire is going to burn for a long, long time. We’ll be dealing with the effects of the fire long after people return to their homes.”

A high pressure system brought warmer, dry weather and strong winds to the region on Monday. The Ranch fire spread east and southeast, as crews worked aggressively to hold previously established containment lines. It has now burned into sections of Mendocino, Lake and Colusa counties.

Officials said backfire operations in the Cow Mountain area kept the River fire in check. The firefight there and at other containment lines were aided by additional fire engines, water tenders and bulldozers.

Together, the two fires consumed 16,818 acres on Monday, pushing it to the top of the state’s list of most infamous wildfires. Brown, however, called the designation “inconsequential,” compared to the number of lives upended by the fires.

On Monday, Jim Bolander found himself on top of his home on Spring Valley Road, hosing down his roof. Bolander, who drives a concrete mixer for a living, has resided in Spring Valley for the past eight years.

Last Thursday evening, he was pulling into his driveway when he got a Nixle alert ordering Spring Valley residents to evacuate. Bolander, however, decided to stay, joining several neighbors who refused to leave the community hit in late June by the Pawnee fire, a blaze that kicked off this year’s early fire season.

“It was like a big slap in the face because we just went through it about a month ago,” he said.

Bolander spent the afternoon Monday dousing spot fires that popped up in brush behind his house and helping firefighters “pull hose and cut fence.”

Lake County Supervisor Jim Steele, whose district covers many of the communities above Clear Lake currently under evacuation, said the residents he represents continue to endure many hardships as a result of the fires.

“My entire district is evacuated,” he said. “They’ve been in shelter for 10 days and they’re anxious to get back in to their homes. ... All those communities have a fire line around them.”

Steele said he entered the evacuation zone near Nice with the manager of the Sentry Market, the largest supermarket in the area. The store smelled foul from rotten meat and produce.

Steele estimated he had about 12,000 people in his district who were either evacuated or “sequestered in place” and staying off the streets. He said helicopters and aircraft hit aggressively the fire lines in the ridges above lakeshore communities on Monday.

Colleen Chatoff, a real estate broker who lives in Clearlake Oaks, has been living with family in Los Gatos since Friday, when she was evacuated. Chatoff, the sitting president of North Bay Association of Realtors, described conditions in her community and others in now familiar terms.

“The smoke was so dense everywhere,” she said. “It was just like hell, it was awful. ... We really didn’t expect the fire to come all the way down to the Oaks.”

That fire has burned into sections of Mendocino, Lake and Colusa counties. All three counties had mandatory evacuations in effect Monday night.

In Lake County, mandatory evacuations included the area east of the Lake-Mendocino county line; south of the Lake-Mendocino-Glenn county line; west of the Lake-Colusa county line; north of Highway 20. Also, the area of Scotts Valley Road north of the intersection of Scotts Valley Road and Hendricks Road (north); south of Highway 20; east of the Lake-Mendocino county line; and west of Scotts Valley Road.

In Mendocino County, evacuations were ordered from Highway 20 east of Potter Valley Road to the Lake County line. The Cow Mountain area was also under evacuation.

In Colusa County, evacuations covered the town limits of Stonyford west to the Lake County line and north to the Glenn County line; the Century Ranch subdivision; Lodoga from Squaw Creek Inn South and all areas west of Bear Creek Road to Highway 20.

Progress on the River fire Monday led to the lifting of evacuation orders for areas in Scotts Valley.

Jeni Castro, a 35-year-old Lakeport resident who lives alone with two cats she calls her “furry children,” spent her first night back home Monday. Since July 28, Castro was evacuated to and from both Upper Lake and Kelseyville. She spent four nights in a hotel in Rohnert Park and most recently with friends in the southern portion of Lakeport, which was repopulated a few days ago.

“You kept going somewhere and the fire kept following you,” she said.

Castro said she’s happy that she can go home, but she cannot forget the fire is still raging to the north.

“You still see a lot of smoke and you ask yourself, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure its safe to be back?’”

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