Pawnee fire in Lake County jumps to 11,500 acres
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.