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WILBUR SPRINGS — Bone-dry conditions from the historic four-year drought gave the massive Rocky fire a stunning boost late Saturday night along the blaze’s northeast front in Lake and Colusa counties.

“There’s no moisture in that fuel on the hill; it just keeps burning and burning,” said Steve Kaufmann, a Ventura County firefighter serving as a Cal Fire spokesman.

The conditions, he said, were “historic.”

The 42-square-mile Rocky fire is the largest of about two dozen blazes burning around the state. Statewide, more than 8,000 firefighters were battling 21 large fires as of Saturday afternoon, and much of the extreme northern part of the state is on high alert because of lightning strikes that are expected to continue through today.

The Rocky fire, which had grown to 27,000 acres, closed two highways and forced thousands of people from their homes, was “growing by leaps and bounds” in rugged terrain unreachable by firefighters on the ground, Kaufmann said. There was no cool, moist air blowing from the coast to temper the fire’s advance.

Kaufmann was standing outside the Cal Fire station in Wilbur Springs at the intersection of Highways 20 and 16 in Colusa County about 9 p.m.

Some firefighters who’ve been on the job for 25 to 35 years “have never seen a fire burning like this at this time of night,” he said. A bright red glow rimmed the ridge above the fire station and along both highways, about 45 miles east of Clearlake Oaks.

Fixed-wing aircraft had been attacking the fire, but ceased flying as darkness fell, he said.

Scores of fire engines were deployed along Highways 20 and 16, in hopes of containing the fire, which was moving north and east from the Lower Lake area in Lake County, where it erupted Wednesday and quickly spread.

“We create a box, trying to keep the fire in our box,” Kaufmann said, adding that the strategy doesn’t always work.

A large fire can throw hot embers across the road, and fire crews will try to put them out.

“There could readily be more embers than engines,” he said.

Officials closed Highway 20 from Highway 53 to Interstate 5 in Williams to all through traffic. Highway 16 was closed south from Highway 20 all the way to the Yolo County line.

Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for the Double Eagle housing development, comprised of about 50 homes, and all areas east of the Cache Creek recreation area along the Highway 20 corridor to Walker Ridge Road, said Sheriff Brian Martin. Late Saturday night, residents on the west side of Highway 16 from County Road 40 north to Highway 20 were ordered to evacuate their homes.

Saturday afternoon, more than a dozen fire engines staged along Highway 20 east of Clearlake Oaks, awaiting the approach of the blaze from the south under a smoky gray sky.

“It’s a waiting game,” said Capt. Patrick Collins of the Garden Grove Fire Department in Orange County.

Collins was manning one of five lime green state Office of Emergency Services trucks parked at an angle in a gravel pullout along the highway.

Fears that the fire might move closer to the city of Lower Lake had been eased, firefighters said.

The goal Saturday was to keep the flames from crossing Highway 20 into rough, hilly terrain north of the roadway, firefighters said. The fire remained only 5 percent contained.

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North Bay Suicide Prevention 24-hour hotline: 855-587-6373

NAMI Sonoma County warmline: 707-527-6655

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Collins said the firefighting assets deployed along the highway were ready to move as soon as the blaze arrived.

“The objective is not to let it jump this highway,” he said. “Usually it does what it wants to. We just try to get in the way.”

Cal Fire officials were encouraged that they were able to fortify containment lines on the west side of the fire as it moved southwest toward Lower Lake and the east side of Clearlake, where an evacuation advisory was issued for approximately 5,000 people. An advisory is a recommendation and not a requirement to evacuate.

All told, mandatory evacuations and advisories had affected about 12,100 people living in 5,156 residences, Cal Fire said.

The blaze has destroyed 24 homes and 26 non-residential buildings such as garages or sheds. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries, according to Cal Fire.

Fire crews have been hampered in their efforts given the area is rugged and hilly terrain of terrain of oak woodlands, grasslands and chaparral. Temperatures in and near the triple-digit range with low humidity aided the fire’s early spread.

About 1,600 fire personnel are working on the fire, assisted by four air tankers, 19 helicopters and 160 fire engines.

Shelters have been established at the Middletown High School and Kelseyville High School.

Keri Brown, manager at Clearlake’s Rays Food Place, said residents are trying to go about normal lives, hitting the grocery store as they wait for news on whether they’ll have to evacuate.

“Everybody is hanging in there and doing the best they can,” Brown said.

She said people have remained calm and are working together to help those who have been forced to flee their homes. As for the store, Brown said they had been trying to get evacuees sitting in their parking lot inside, away from the 100-degree weather.

“We’re here doing everything we can,” Brown said. ““Everybody is working together.”

In Napa and Solano counties to the south, the Wragg fire was 95 percent contained as of Saturday evening. It has burned more than 8,000 acres near Lake Berryessa.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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