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