Thousands under order to flee Valley fire in Lake County; four firefighters burned

By nightfall, the fast-moving flames were burning homes, apartments and commercial buildings in Middletown. The fire has consumed 25,000 acres.|

MIDDLETOWN - A terrifying wildfire exploded Saturday through woodland communities in southern Lake County, forcing thousands to flee their homes and sending four firefighters to the hospital with second-degree burns.

Saturday’s raging flames destroyed scores of structures and placed the county, already the stage for four major wildfires this summer, under renewed siege. Some evacuees were cut off from escape routes, while others abandoned their cars to burn on roadways. Hundreds of firefighters streamed into the area to battle the blaze, which grew from 50 acres to more than 10,000 acres in the span of five hours Saturday. It doubled in size again over the next four hours, swelling to 25,000 acres by 10:25 p.m.

By 10 p.m., the flames were burning homes, apartments and commercial buildings in Middletown, home to more than 1,300 people. Firefighters made a stand at the town’s high school, knocking down a fire that started to burn the main building.

“I’m looking in all directions, and all I see is fire,” Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman said Saturday night. “This is unreal. … This thing just blew up on us.”

He predicted a harsh reality for the area’s residents this morning.

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

Emergency officials ordered mandatory evacuations of residents in Cobb, Middletown, Hidden Valley Lakes, Harbin Hot Springs, Berryessa Estates and those who live along Highway 29 all the way to the outskirts of Calistoga in Napa County. The evacuation area is home to more than 8,000 people, taking in a ?30-mile corridor along the highway.

The blaze, which began about 1:30 p.m., spread much faster than any of four previous wildfires that already had blackened more than 150 square miles in the county this summer.

Witnesses reported wind-whipped flames that reached 150 to 200 feet in the air. The flames could be seen in the hills above Middletown, while a towering plume of smoke was visible from Santa Rosa roughly 40 miles away.

Cal Fire officials Saturday night had yet to release an initial count of the property losses. But eyewitness reports suggested the damage in so short a time was breathtaking.

The destroyed homes and buildings included Hoberg’s Resort, a historic retreat founded in the 1880s on the wooded slopes of Cobb Mountain. The resort was burned to the ground.

The fire also consumed all the structures and vehicles within three miles of Hoberg’s, located on Highway 175 north of Cobb.

About 50 homes on the northern outskirts of Cobb were destroyed, but the community’s downtown area, including a school and a fire station, remained intact late Saturday.

“This beats everything, absolutely,” said Voris Brumfield, a former Lake County supervisor, comparing Saturday’s inferno with the 70,000-acre Rocky fire in August and the massive Hidden Valley fire of 1986. “This is going to be the most horrible devastation for this county.”

Four members of a state helicopter crew based at Boggs Mountain suffered burns responding to the Valley fire, Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant confirmed Saturday.

The injured firefighters were hurt in the initial attack on the fire, said Cal Fire Capt. Emily Smith. They all suffered second-degree burns and were airlifted to the burn unit at the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, where they were in stable condition, according to Berlant.

A Cal Fire union official, Mike Lopez, said he had visited all four. He said in a post on Twitter that they were expected to make a full recovery.

Despite the evacuation orders, many of those who fled the fire initially remained Saturday night in Middletown.

They parked vehicles, boats and RVs at Middletown High and waited within site of the burning hills.

By that time, the only escape route was south into Napa County. Hours earlier officials had closed Highway 29 north of Middletown.

As a result, emergency officials scrambled to open a second evacuation center at the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga. They earlier opened an evacuation center at the Presbyterian church on Third Street in Kelseyville for those residents who fled to the north.

The fire started in the 8000 block of High Valley Road west of Cobb at 1:24 p.m. Saturday and exploded to 10,000 acres by 6:30 p.m., enveloping Cobb Mountain in smoke and prompting speedy evacuations of several communities as it swept east toward Highway 29, a main north/south thoroughfare. The cause of the fire was under investigation.

The flames raced through oak woodlands and grassland parched by the state’s prolonged drought. It spared nothing in its path, setting even green vineyards ablaze.

Andrew Wolf, a resident of Hidden Valley Lake, said the wind was whipping the flames as he watched from his deck across the valley from Cobb Mountain.

“We’ve got like 20-mph winds here, and this is blowing up really, really fast,” Wolf said.

A few minutes later, he reported seeing the fire coming down the side of mountain, toward Highway 29 “like a storm.”

“We are getting large embers in Hidden Valley - wood embers, not ash,” he said.

Baxman, who led a strike team of Sonoma County firefighters during the early hours of the blaze, described devastation unlike any he’d ever witnessed on a fire before. He saw abandoned vehicles in the highway, exploding propane tanks, downed power lines and broken utility poles, and homes and commercial buildings going up in flames by the dozens.

Similarly, Santa Rosa Fire Battalion Chief Jack Piccinini described seeing commercial buildings, houses, barns and outbuildings destroyed by fire, as well as a handful of burned-out cars along Highway 29, apparently abandoned by people trying to flee on a road that was backed up by traffic and roadwork near the county line.

For the residents, “I can’t imagine there’s any feeling other than, just, catastrophic,” Piccinini said.

Cal Fire on Saturday evening reported that hundreds of firefighters were working throughout the night to contain the blaze, a number that was sure to grow. Numerous Sonoma County departments were called on to send resources Saturday.

The injured firefighters served on a Cal Fire Super Huey helicopter that typically carries a seven-person crew, consisting of a pilot, two fire captains and five firefighters. It has a cruising speed of 126 mph and is used for fast initial attack on wildfires.

Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff was with the injured firefighters at the hospital and said they were among the initial units sent to the fire from nearby Boggs Mountain State Forest. It remained unclear what they were doing when they were overrun by flames.

The Valley fire is the fifth major wildland blaze to hit Lake County in what has been a horrific wildfire season.

It started 20 to 25 miles away from two massive fires that alone blackened nearly 150 square miles of rural land in July and August outside of Lower Lake, reaching nearly to Hidden Valley Lake on the south and up toward Clearlake to the north.

The Rocky and Jerusalem fires destroyed or damaged 70 homes, causing an estimated $2.6 to $2.9 million in losses in Lake County.

While drought-stricken forests around the state have contributed to this season’s wildfires, Boggs Mountain State Forest and Cobb Mountain were singled out as local hot spots earlier this year, due to trees that are dry and ravaged by opportunistic, hole-boring insects.

The state demonstration forest has a blend of mixed conifer, oak and other hardwood species, as well as chaparral at lower elevations.

The peak temperature in the fire zone Saturday was 90 degrees on a cloudy day, with sustained winds of 12 to 20 mph and gusts up to 36 mph, according to the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

Sunday will be cloudy, as well, with temperatures in the mid- to upper-80s, said Jim Mathews, a weather service meteorologist. Winds will be lighter, from 5 to 10 mph at lower elevations and slightly higher on ridgetops.

Staff Writer Paul Payne contributed to this story.

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