Revisiting the Valley fire’s initial, terrifying spread
'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.