Pawnee fire in Lake County jumps to 11,500 acres

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Slightly cooler temperatures and lighter winds helped slow the advance of the wildfire raging east of Clear Lake on Monday, but the Pawnee fire remained a formidable foe, growing to 11,500 acres and continuing to menace the rural hillsides of a county besieged by repeated wildfires in recent years.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Lake County on Monday as the fire destroyed 22 structures in the rural Spring Valley area, including 12 homes, and 1,500 people remained under mandatory evacuation orders.

Firefighters took advantage of favorable conditions and additional ground and air resources Monday to make a stand, succeeding in keeping the flames out of the most populated areas. The fire was 5 percent contained Monday and was moving mostly north and east.

“The wind is actually pushing the fire away from Spring Valley at this point, so that’s good,” said Jay Beristianos, chief of the Northshore Fire Protection District.

But behind the encouraging reports of progress from the front lines Monday there remained a sense of dread about the long fire season ahead with such a large fire so early in the season.

“It’s an ominous sign and it’s the last thing that any of us want,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, who spent Sunday visiting evacuees. “Any time there’s hot weather and high winds, my stomach churns.”

The fire started Saturday afternoon — the third day of summer — near Pawnee Trail and New Long Valley roads, about five miles northeast of Clearlake Oaks. It burned 1,000 acres before midnight in a rural and sparsely populated area near Indian Valley Reservoir and then exploded Sunday as heat and wind gusts returned, consuming some 7,700 acres by Sunday evening.

Resident Christopher Musser recalled the “ring of fire” he saw enveloping the valley as he drove Sunday to check on a friend’s home.

“Everywhere you looked, every ridge surrounding the valley was on fire,” Musser said Monday from his Cache Creek Road home east of the valley.

While the Sunday winds wreaked havoc on firefighting efforts, they also helped pull in a heavy marine layer overnight that brought a welcomed spike in humidity. Much of Sonoma County was bathed in fog Monday morning and that same coastal influence helped keep moisture levels up — and temperatures down — at the fire.

Temperatures in Lake County reached the high 80s Monday, down from near 100 degrees on Sunday.

“The big headline for today: slightly cooler and less dry weather conditions expected to cross the Pawnee fire on Monday and Tuesday,” said Matt Mehle, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Humidity levels rose to 18 to 23 percent on Monday, up from single digits in parts of Lake County on Sunday, Mehle said. Those favorable conditions allowed firefighters to focus on structure protection as hand crews and bulldozers cut fire containment lines, assisted by numerous drops from helicopter and air tankers throughout Monday.

As the day wore on, however, the moisture evaporated and the fire was reinvigorated, said Cal Fire Capt. Jordan Motta.

“That’s why you can see a really large column of smoke from the valley, because as the temperature has come back up the fire’s gotten a lot more active,” Motta said midday Monday.

There was no shortage of assistance from other departments on the fire, largely because the Pawnee fire is the only one of its size in the region at present, McGuire said.

Total personnel on the fire increased to 237, including 32 engines, seven dozers, two helicopters, and six water tenders.

The strength of the mutual aid response to this fire is tribute to state’s system but also a reminder of the importance of beefing up that system to ensure it can handle the nearly year-round fire danger in the state, McGuire said.

“Firefighters did a phenomenal job at saving dozens of homes,” he said. “I saw fire burned up to the fence of some dwellings and firefighters were still able to save the homes.”

Eleven Sonoma County fire engines are at the Pawnee fire, making up two strike teams plus one extra engine. Both teams went to Lake County Sunday and were assigned to protect homes at Double Eagle Ranch, north of Highway 20, on the east side of the blaze.

The Pawnee is the first local wildland fire this year. It’s the second time Sonoma County firefighters have left the county to help — in early June a team of five engines went to San Benito County, south of Gilroy, for fires totaling more than 1,000 acres.

The influx of firefighters will attempt to increase the containment of the fire and keep it from extending into the Double Eagle Ranch area east of Spring Valley. That’s where Herb Gura, a longtime Konocti Unified School District Board member, has lived for decades. Gura was evacuated from his home Sunday but returned Monday to check on his six-acre property.

Over the course of an hour or so he spotted four planes making retardant drops on an area north of Spring Valley and west of the reservoir.

“It’s a little better today, but they’re still having trouble with it,” Gura said.

Gura, 69, moved to the rural area in 1977 and works in Clearlake as a legal document assistant. He makes the half-hour drive to his home east out Highway 20 because he loves the natural beauty of the land. His social media posts in recent months have included a photo of a bobcat near his property and video of a fire from September.

Fire is a fact of life in the area, which has either been overrun by or threatened by several major wildfires in recent years, including the Rocky fire in 2015 and the Walker fire in 2008. This latest scare will cause Gura to redouble his efforts to create a fire buffer around his home, he said.

“If I survive this fire, I think I’m going to get serious about fire prevention,” he said.

Officials expressed concern that some residents weren’t heeding evacuation requests.

Some residents initially ignored evacuation orders, only to jump in their cars and flee down the two-lane road leading out of Spring Valley just as firefighters were heading into it to protect homes, said Paul Lowenthal, Santa Rosa’s assistant fire marshal and public information officer for the Pawnee fire.

“It created an issue. Firefighters were working and people at the last minute were leaving when the fires started to threaten Spring Valley,” he said. “That’s the classic example of why” residents need to go when an evacuation order is given.

At a community meeting at the Clearlake Oaks Moose Lodge Monday evening, sheriff’s officials also expressed concern about people who lived “off the radar” in Double Eagle Ranch area and whether they were heeding evacuation orders.

Gura said there are a large number of properties in the area where cannabis is grown.

More than 100 evacuated residents have gathered in RVs and campers at the Moose Lodge property on Highway 20, an unofficial shelter that allowed them to remain with their pets. Many were eager for updates about their homes and other community assets, and there was relief Monday when it was clear that more homes hadn’t burned since the morning.

“For many of us in this room, this is not our first rodeo,” Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin told the crowd. “Having been through this so many times, you know what to expect. You know it is inconvenient. You know it is not going to be quick.”

Residents inquired about the status of individual addresses and asked when they’d be able to return to their homes for vital items, like medicine. They cheered when officials told them that Pacific Gas & Electric had installed a portable generator for the only grocery in town, Spring Valley’s Pantry, in the case of power outages.

The successes were overshadowed, however, by news that the forecast called for another red flag warning Wednesday and Thursday. The warning is the highest alert for fire danger, issued during hot, dry and windy conditions that can cause fires to grow rapidly.

The changing weather puts pressure on fire crews to make aggressive nighttime attacks to contain the fire, said Cal Fire incident commander Billy See.

“We are in this merry-go-round, fighting Mother Nature,” See said.

Further evacuation information is available at the Lake County Sheriff’s Office website www.lakesheriff.com.

An evacuation center is located at Lower Lake High School, 9430 Lake St., Lower Lake. An animal staging is located at Social Service Center, 15975 Anderson Ranch Parkway, Lower Lake. For additional animal needs, call animal control at 707-263-0278.

Staff Writer Randi Rossmann can be reached at 707‑521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@rossmannreport. Staff Writer Martin Espinoza can be reached at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish. Staff Writer Kevin McCallum can be reached at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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