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Pawnee fire grows in Lake County to 8,200 acres

Shelters for Pawnee fire evacuees

Lower Lake High School, 9430 Lake St., Lower Lake, is the official shelter established for people evacuating from the Pawnee fire. It is equipped to handle animals.

The Clearlake Oaks Moose Lodge, 15900 E. Highway 20, Clearlake Oaks, is not authorized by the Office of Emergency Services but is also sheltering fire evacuees, mostly people in campers and RVs who want their animals with them.

There is an authorized Lake County animal services station in an open field at Highway 53 and Anderson Ridge Road in Lower Lake.

Flames raced through eastern Lake County on Sunday into Monday, devouring 8,200 acres and forcing thousands to flee for their lives in the first major wildfire to erupt in the North Bay since the October firestorm.

As of Monday morning, the Pawnee fire had destroyed 22 structures and threatened 600 others in the Spring Valley area, a rural community northeast of Clearlake Oaks, Cal Fire officials said.

A thick plume of smoke spiraled into the sky and showered ash over the region, including sections of Sonoma County 50 miles away. Erupting on the third day of summer, it served as a sobering reminder of fire's unpredictable and explosive force in a region still scarred from the worst wildfires in California history.

“Spring Valley people are scared to death of these fires, and we have just begun fire season,” said resident Sherre Prior, 74, who was evacuated from her home at Spring Valley and Wolf Creek roads around midnight Saturday.

“I've never seen flames like this,” said neighbor Gigi Armitage, 53, who has lived in Spring Valley for 18 years. “They were really thick and red, and they were moving. You could hear the snapping of the burning trees and the bang of people's propane tanks.”

The fire broke out at 5:23 p.m. Saturday near Pawnee Road and New Long Valley Road, burning 1,000 acres before midnight. It grew to 1,500 acres by Sunday morning and then exploded during the day as the heat and wind gusts returned, consuming some 7,700 acres by Sunday evening.

“Weather is definitely a contributing factor to this fire,” said Matt Mehle, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “The weather has been hot, dry and windy, which is a recipe for fires.”

Firefighters attempting to save homes and halt the fire's spread worked in difficult conditions.

The Clear Lake area was swept by 28 mph winds Sunday, while temperatures hit 96 degrees, weather service meteorologist Steve Anderson said.

Temperatures in the fire zone are expected to drop into the mid 90s today, while winds will subside to 5 to 10 mph, Anderson said.

More than 2,000 people were ordered to evacuate from the Spring Valley area, an zone that was expanded throughout the day to include all areas north of Highway 20 and east of Old Long Valley Road.

A large wall of flames was burning east toward Indian Valley Reservoir late Sunday afternoon.

“Firefighters been doing an amazing job at structure protection, but because of the rate of speed the fire is spreading we are seeing some homes lost,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, who represents much of the area.

“It's been erratic and conditions can change at a moment's notice.”

Double Eagle, a community of about 100 people, was in the path of the fire and all residents were being evacuated, said McGuire, who spent most of Sunday in the fire zone with Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin and Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry.

All are familiar with the threat of fire in Lake County, which has suffered from large and destructive wildfires annually for the past three years.

“There is no county in California that has been impacted as hard as Lake County has in recent memory,” McGuire said.

An estimated 2,500 to 3,000 people live in the area of the fire, said Dale Carnathan, emergency services manager for Lake County.

“It's not greatly populated, but there's only one road in and out of that valley,” Carnathan said. “We don't know at this point whether those structures are residences, barns or outbuildings.”

An official shelter capable of accommodating 300 people was established at Lower Lake High School, which housed 14 people on Saturday night.

Many residents gathered in RVs and campers at the Clearlake Oaks Moose Lodge, an unofficial shelter that allowed them to remain with their pets.

Lower Lake resident Harriette Sucher, who lives 10 miles from Spring Valley, characterized the area as “semi-rural” and “out in the middle of nowhere,” with a mixture of residential streets and ranches, with terrain ranging from grasslands to woods.

Sucher said she heard scanner reports of Lake County Sheriff's Department officers, State Fish and Wildlife personnel and others knocking on doors to warn residents to flee Saturday night. The area is generally a cellphone dead zone, she said.

“It's a bad fire,” said Sucher, 59, whose own Lower Lake neighborhood is still recovering from the Clayton Fire in 2016.

“We're getting lots of smoke and ash from the Spring Valley Fire now,” she said Sunday. “I can see the plume smoke overhead.”

The fire was uncontained Sunday night, and the cause remains under investigation. There were no reports of injuries so far.

PG&E turned off power in the area at Cal Fire's request in the middle of the night, Carnathan said.

The utility company's website said 504 customers lost power at 12:49 a.m. Estimated restoration of power is 6 p.m. today.

Cal Fire said 237 firefighters were attempting to prevent the blaze from spreading and additional resources were on the way.

Responding agencies included Cal Fire and various fire agencies throughout Northern California.

Cal Fire aircraft flew over the flames, dropping pink-colored fire retardant from the air.

“It is impressive,” McGuire said. “The cavalry has arrived, and they are fighting like hell.”

The last major fire in the Spring Valley area was the Fork fire in 1996, although parts were burned in the Wye fire in 2012.

It was not affected by the 2015 Valley fire, which killed five people, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and scorched more than 76,000 acres.

Staff Writer Susan Minichiello contributed to this story. You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707- 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

Shelters for Pawnee fire evacuees

Lower Lake High School, 9430 Lake St., Lower Lake, is the official shelter established for people evacuating from the Pawnee fire. It is equipped to handle animals.

The Clearlake Oaks Moose Lodge, 15900 E. Highway 20, Clearlake Oaks, is not authorized by the Office of Emergency Services but is also sheltering fire evacuees, mostly people in campers and RVs who want their animals with them.

There is an authorized Lake County animal services station in an open field at Highway 53 and Anderson Ridge Road in Lower Lake.

Dan Taylor

Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat

Do you take fun seriously? I know I do. Tell me what you want to know about arts and entertainment in the North Bay to make the best use of your leisure time and money. As a longtime local arts journalist, I have learned where to look and who to ask.

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