Revisiting the Valley fire’s initial, terrifying spread

A week after the Valley fire erupted in a field near Cobb and quickly spread to 40,000 acres, first responders and locals recall the terrifying scene.|

'Immediate need' was the call heard over and over on emergency radios in the first minutes of the Valley fire, as a growing inferno rampaged across Cobb Mountain in Lake County and announced itself as a whirling, roaring, wind-driven monster.

With no time to spare, firefighters from around the region were on order, the first wave of a one-sided fight that saw flames race nearly uncontrolled through rural subdivisions and into neighborhood blocks, torching nearly 63 square miles in the first 12 hours and reducing hundreds of homes to ash.

At least three people have been found dead in the remains — killed, it is believed, in the firestorm that struck last Saturday.

Thousands have fled their homes, with hundreds facing long-term displacement. Six people were still missing Friday, with cadaver dogs searching the burn area for victims.

The blaze currently ranks as the ninth most destructive in California's history.

The survivors tell of advancing flames that rushed down upon their neighborhoods like a tornado, frantic flights past walls of fire and menacing clouds of black, swirling smoke.

For many, the catastrophic blaze boils down to one fact: From a few burning patches of grass on the northern slope of Cobb Mountain, it took just 12 hours for wind-whipped flames to devour 40,000 acres. From the ignition point, it was 18 miles to the fire's southern front near Napa County.

'Unprecedented,' is how Cal Fire Division Chief Jim Wright described it. His participation in the fire started with the evacuation of residents first in its path: his neighbors.

'None of us predicted, or could have predicted, how fast that fire moved,' Cal Fire spokeswoman Amy Head said.

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Greg 'Bert' Bertelli was on duty when the blaze first started last Saturday afternoon. He was driving over Cobb Mountain between meetings in Middletown and Kelseyville.

When he left Middletown at Highway 29 after lunch, he noticed the wind was picking up — a detail that grabs the attention of any seasoned firefighter.

Bertelli, a 25-year fire service veteran, had been monitoring humidity levels 'at rock bottom for days.' It was warm, too, the temperature hovering a few degrees below triple digits.

Head said the wind felt like a 'hot hair dryer.'

Bertelli said he was on Bottle Rock Road, about 3 miles past the turn onto High Valley Road at the edge of Cobb, when he got word that a fire had just been reported in the area. It was just before 1:30 p.m. He had neither seen nor smelled smoke while passing by.

But minutes earlier, residents of High Valley Road — a narrow hillside byway bordered by mixed forest, dried weeds and outcroppings of exposed volcanic rock — had found several patches of grass burning in a neighbor's field and called 911.

In the time before firefighters could get to the scene, neighbors made a short-lived attempt to halt the fire, using a garden hose and even splashing water from a spigot.

But the blaze grew amid winds that would later be measured at up to 40 mph.

'It was an overwhelming fire already,' recalled Troy Nelson, 40, who abandoned the fight with a burned thumb and singed hair. He watched in rising panic as flames swept up the hill behind his neighbor's house and began incinerating homes.

The first engine — a crew from the Cobb station — had arrived by the time Bertelli doubled back to High Valley Road, and a helicopter with seven elite firefighters from Boggs Mountain State Forest was putting down nearby.

Bertelli saw thick smoke stretched across Bottle Rock Road, and within about five minutes on the scene had twice augmented his request for more ground and air resources.

'I was aware that we had a potential of a rapidly moving fire,' he said.

Two large wildfires had already put Lake County under siege in August, charring nearly 150 square miles of rural countryside about a dozen miles away, to the southeast of Clear Lake, the county's aqueous heart.

Those blazes, too, ignited in remote, rugged and tinder-dry terrain, with wind to drive them forward. Firefighters were awed by their speedy growth.

But they had seen nothing like the Valley fire.

Bertelli, who would assume operational command of the blaze for its first 18 hours, working alongside Cal Fire Assistant Chief Linda Green and many others, said the initial goal was to hold the blaze west of Bottle Rock Road, where it was headed within its first few minutes.

Several engines had arrived and the helitack crew, split into two groups, was around working the left flank. Wright, the Cal Fire division chief, just called back to duty, was at home nearby, donning his uniform.

Disaster hit on multiple fronts almost at once, within 30 minutes of the first callout. The fire jumped Bottle Rock Road, and flames overran four of the firefighters in the Boggs Mountain Helitack Crew.

The firefighters — Logan Pridmore, Richard Reiff, Niko Matteoli and Capt. Pat Ward — had enough time to deploy portable fire shelters, but they suffered second-degree burns. Ward, who took shelter last, was hurt worst.

In the chaos, they were able to describe something of their location, noting a metal barn that Wright, who was evacuating people on nearby Spring Hill Road, recognized.

He raced to the scene, meeting two of the other helitack members en route and taking them with him.

They found the injured firefighters and carefully loaded them into the bed of Wright's pickup, covering them with fire shelters. The two uninjured crewmates stayed in the back as Wright drove to nearby Saw Mill Road, where their pilot collected them for a short journey to the Boggs Mountain heliport. The base itself was in the immediate path of flames as the firefighters were loaded into medical aircraft bound for UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, where they remained in treatment this week.

Bertelli had started his day with the helitack crew, joining them for breakfast and a morning briefing — a routine part of fire-season communication that he now says helped save their lives.

'There's lot of things that saved their lives — the equipment they had, their crew cohesion, their courage and their selfless acts,' he said. 'Those guys love each other, and they stuck together because, in that moment, that was all they had: the four of them.'

By 3 p.m., 90 minutes after the fire ignited, airborne observers were issuing increasingly urgent and dire reports. The fire was up to 400 acres and was spreading across Cobb Mountain.

The town of Cobb, home to about 2,000 people and one of numerous villages in the area, already was under an evacuation order. By 3:45 p.m., that order would extend to Harbin Hot Springs, a popular clothing-optional resort about 4 miles southeast of Cobb.

An hour later, by 4:41 p.m., Harbin Hot Springs was on fire as flames hopscotched to the southeast, racing up ridgelines that made the inferno visible from Middletown, home to 1,300 people.

The area's rough, rumpled topography and the accumulation of fuel since the last major wildfire — the 1962 Widow Creek fire — had long elicited concern about the risk of such a blaze.

Four years of historic drought had only made matters worse. Experts earlier this year singled out Cobb Mountain and the nearby 3,500-acre Boggs Mountain State Forest, where a high number of insect-ravaged trees could give fire a foothold, scientists said.

Firefighters watched last Saturday as winds made those trees into matchsticks, fueling the fire's march to the east and south. The blaze by that point had the markings of a firestorm, creating its own wind and weather.

John Maclean, an author who has written extensively on deadly fires in California and the West, said such blazes are becoming more common and the speed with which they grow can be fatal.

'These things are happening at magnitudes that are frightening,' Maclean said. If a fire is predicted to be two to four hours away, he said, 'it's time to move. It might be (only) 20 to 40 minutes.'

Last Saturday, the wildfire was quickly beyond human control, and it grew exponentially more fierce as it rounded the northern flank of Cobb Mountain, ravaging parts of Cobb and curving south, where it hit Whispering Pines and blew through Anderson Springs.

Two bodies, those presumed to be Barbara McWilliams, 72, and Leonard Neft, 69, would later be found in the area. McWilliams, a former teacher who suffered from advanced multiple sclerosis, never left her house. Neft, 69, a fit and wiry former newspaper reporter, sought to drive and then to hike to safety. His family said his body was found a quarter-mile from his abandoned car.

Block by block, firefighters and law enforcement officials on Saturday were attempting to shield residents from similar fates. Bertelli was sounding his pickup's siren, yelling at people to clear out.

The fire was competing with its own sounds.

'The fire was actually starting to pulsate,' Bertelli said, imitating a sort of rhythmic locomotive.

'It was the weirdest thing I have ever seen. It's almost like it was trying to get oxygen.'

Gusts were showering ashes around the area and throwing embers a quarter- and a half-mile ahead of the front, aiding the fire's spread and its erratic path.

An enormous pillar of smoke filled the sky, turning heads in Santa Rosa, more than 40 miles away.

Cloverdale Fire Chief Jason Jenkins, who was driving north toward Middletown from Calistoga, said the column was a sign that anything in 'the path of that fire was going to be a destruction zone.'

In Middletown, residents who had poured down from the mountain gathered along streets and in parking lots, staring up in disbelief at the fury of the fire as they wondered what to do next.

In Hidden Valley Lake, about 8 miles east of Cobb, Andrew Wolf watched the mountain burn from his deck, feeling the wind and eventually seeing embers rain upon his home.

By 4:45 p.m., he said, the blaze was 'like a storm coming down the east side of the mountain toward Highway 29.'

Within the next two hours, public safety officials would order residents of Hidden Valley Lake to leave the area in what became a succession of evacuations from Lower Lake all the way south to Tubbs Lane in Calistoga, and east from Middletown to the Napa County line.

Wright said it took courage for fire commanders Green and Bertelli to evacuate such a broad swath of the region. 'They saved numerous lives by doing that,' he said.

Indeed, by 7:30 p.m., the fire covered 10,000 acres of the county; and by 10:30 p.m., when it was burning in Middletown, it had more than doubled to 25,000 acres.

Local firefighters who rushed into the area met with chaos, as evacuees clogged southbound Highway 29 in their effort to escape and fire began spreading in multiple directions.

One resident who did not leave, Bruce Burns of Hidden Valley Lake, was found dead days later in a building at his brother's recycling company just across Highway 29 from Grange Road. The blaze jumped the highway around 6 p.m., extending the firefight into Hidden Valley Lake, home to about 5,600 people. From there, it would race south to Middletown.

Off Grange Road, Jessica Smith, her mother- and sister-in-law were preparing to flee the family ranch when the fire was suddenly at their doorstep.

They had just enough time to move their cars and animals into a roping corral with an earthen floor that they hoped would keep them safe from the encroaching flames. Smith's husband, Cody, arrived just as the fire closed around them, and for two or more hours they hunkered down, trying to stay calm, as walls of flame surrounded them. The Smiths could see well enough to watch their home burn to the ground.

'It was like being inside of a tornado, but flames,' said 29-year-old Jessica Smith, who is pregnant and expecting her baby to arrive next week. 'Everybody was just quietly crying.'

As the fire spread along the east side of Highway 29, all firefighters could do was ensure people were out and try to save whatever structures they could.

'In Hidden Valley Lake, the fire was burning all around us, and we couldn't tell people where to go,' Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman said.

In Middletown, starting about 9 p.m., whole rows of houses started to go up in flames.

'It's the most extreme conditions I've seen that lasted such a long duration,' Jenkins said.

Though largely helpless in the blaze's path, Middletown residents had one advantage over those living in upland communities to the north and west. They could see the fire coming.

In Anderson Springs, just up the street from where the body presumed to be McWilliams was found, Julie Wolf and her family were packing up belongings Saturday night and waiting for an evacuation notice she never received. It was Wolf's adult son who would later shoot an iconic, widely viewed video of the fire as the family drove to safety through an apocalyptic scene of flying ash, flames and torched trees.

Wolf's son and daughter-in-law, visiting from the Bay Area, had seen the fire as they approached her home around 4 p.m. and were panicked even then about getting her out. But Wolf, 60, said as they collected essentials, they could neither see nor hear the fire from her home past the end of Van Dorn Reservoir Road, where Anderson Springs drops away to a canyon.

When they finally pulled out in three vehicles about 8:30 p.m. and then rounded a curve onto Anderson Springs Road, the world was ablaze.

'Every single thing was on fire. Every single house, telephone pole, tree,' Wolf said. 'It wasn't sneaking along through the grass and then maybe igniting a tree, or something. It was like a 30-foot wall of heat.'

By 1:30 a.m., 12 hours later, the blaze covered 40,000 acres and evacuation orders extended into Pope Valley in Napa County.

Flames would cross into eastern Sonoma County by 4 a.m. and inflict what one firefighting official called 'unprecedented' damage to equipment and facilities in The Geysers geothermal fields.

In the fire's wake, roads were lined with burned-out cars and downed power poles. Propane tanks exploded, illuminating home sites reduced to rubble. Emptied of people, the area was eerily quiet.

Firefighters who spent the night seeking to save homes and the high school in Middletown were dumbfounded at the destruction.

Baxman forecast the harsh reality that would confront residents by morning.

'When daylight comes and they see the devastation,' he said, 'it's going to be unbelievable.'

Head, the Cal Fire spokeswoman, said she remembers looking around at the faces of her colleagues while the firefight was hottest.

'We were all in awe of what was happening,' Head said. 'It's not something people normally see. Truly, just a catastrophic event.'

Staff Writers Clark Mason and Randi Rossmann contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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