Record-breaking Mendocino Complex fires now at 292,692 acres
The massive wildfire that has laid siege to a wide swath of northern Lake County since late July continued to expand in several directions Tuesday as firefighters made stands, seeking once again to keep flames from jumping out of rural forestland into more populated areas where thousands of homes remain in jeopardy.
It was the 12th day of the Mendocino Complex fires - the state’s largest active inferno and biggest in recorded history - and there were successes and setbacks.
Evacuation orders and advisories were lifted early in the day along the Highway 20 corridor including Blue Lakes and Bachelor Valley, which had been threatened for more than a week by the Ranch fire, the larger of the two blazes. By 7 p.m. Tuesday, it stood at 243,772 acres with just 20 percent containment.
Evacuation orders were also lifted for most of those in Mendocino County who had been ordered to flee the fires. The smaller of the two blazes, the River fire, stood at 48,920 acres late Tuesday and containment had jumped to 78 percent, up from 58 percent Monday night.
Combined, the fires have burned a total of 292,692 acres and were 34 percent contained.
The fires’ reach is staggering. From the western front in Mendocino County - where the two blazes began July 27 about 14 miles and an hour apart - it is now a three-hour drive to the eastern front in Colusa County. There, the Ranch fire, pushing through bone-dry, oak-dotted foothills, has reached the Stonyford-Lodoga Road area near the Century Ranch residential subdivision, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Mandatory evacuation orders affecting up to 10,000 people remained in place throughout the three-county region, covering Lake Pillsbury to the north; Upper Lake, Nice, Lucerne and Clearlake Oaks along Clear Lake’s north and eastern shores; and miles eastward into Colusa County.
Lake County Supervisor Jim Steele said there were about 800 Lake County residents housed in local shelters Tuesday. Many were ordered out of their homes more than a week ago. Some areas, including Spring Valley, Bear Valley and Double Eagle, were evacuated previously this summer for wildfires.
“What makes this fire extraordinary is its size and we’re only in the first week of August,” said Cal Fire Division Chief Todd Derum. “Last year, we had major wildland and urban interface fires in July, October and December.”
In the 37 years he has been in fire service, Derum has never seen fires quite as large as the ones in the past five years. And they’re burning nearly all year long, he said.
“In my opinion, the term ‘fire season’ is becoming antiquated,” he said. “We’re having major fires throughout the year.”
The Ranch fire gained another 8,892 acres since Monday night and was pushing north, south and southeast, officials said. At least half of the fire is in public forestland, with very limited access for firefighters.
New evacuations were ordered Tuesday for a small area northeast of Potter Valley, where firefighters were prepping a backfire south of Lake Pillsbury to deny the main front additional fuel. Authorities wanted residents out of the area should something go awry, according to Mendocino County sheriff’s Lt. Shannon Barney.
To the east of Clear Lake, in rural Spring Valley, fire has been churning through the hills for days. Fuel breaks created for previous wildfires and bolstered for this one had largely held. But smoldering embers blew over the lines and landed in a subdivision, where Steele saw at least three homes burn as firefighters fought the flames. More may have been lost, he said.
“We had all these firemen patrolling streets in Spring Valley and we still had homes burn,” Steele said.
The fire also made a run near Lake Pillsbury and a few homes were damaged or burned, said Bruno Baertschi, a Ventura County fire captain helping as a public information officer for the Mendocino Complex fires. Firefighters Tuesday continued to protect homes near Pillsbury and dozers worked to strengthen containment lines.
Altogether, 75 homes have been destroyed in the fires and 10,300 structures remain under threat, according to Cal Fire.
More than 4,000 fire personnel are now assigned to the Mendocino Complex fires, with about the same number of personnel on the Carr fire, accounting for nearly 60 percent of firefighters assigned to blazes statewide on Tuesday.
Their efforts are paying off, according to Steele, who represents several of the evacuated areas in Lake County.
“We have a lot of attack aircraft coming in. There’s a lot of pink line,” Steele said, referring to the brightly colored fire retardant. “We have a lot of scrape line from the bulldozers and black line” from the backfires. “Three levels of line that’s protecting us.”
A team of Sonoma County firefighters late Tuesday morning ended a 24-hour shift on the Ranch fire, where they’d worked along remote Bartlett Valley Road building containment lines. The group, led by Windsor Battalion Chief Ron Busch, put out 10,000 feet of hose to prepare for a large backfire operation during the night. It was meant to halt the fire’s southern spread.
Up to 90 local firefighters and fire managers have left Sonoma County to work the fires, said Petaluma fire Battalion Chief Jeff Holden, who was coordinating the out-of-county effort Tuesday. It’s a larger commitment than Sonoma County typically would have during the fire season. But Lake County isn’t far and the need is great, Holden said.
“If these fires were in LA we couldn’t have this many people out,” he said. “There are houses burning down in Lake County.”
While it remained hot, breezy and dry across the region, no red-flag warnings have been issued to alert residents to severe fire weather. Should that change, several of the engines could be called back.
One firefighter was injured this week while working on the Mendocino Complex fires, a Cal Fire spokesman said Tuesday.
No details were available, including the extent of the injury, whether the person was hospitalized and whether the firefighter was on the Ranch or the River fire.
The injury apparently occurred Monday or early Tuesday, Cal Fire spokesman Will Powers said.
You can reach Staff Writers Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or email@example.com and Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.