Pawnee fire grows in Lake County, with hot, windy weekend in forecast

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The Pawnee fire in eastern Lake County continued its forward march on Tuesday, burning another 1,500 acres, as it spread mostly east into largely undeveloped and unforgiving terrain crisscrossed by ravines and ridges off the south end of Indian Valley Reservoir.

But an army of 2,700 firefighters — nearly double the force that started the day — gained critical ground, getting 17 percent of the 13,000-acre fire contained after it had spread unchecked for several days.

Fire officials said a long haul lay ahead, given the rugged landscape and the predicted return of hot, gusty weather this weekend. About 1,500 people have been evacuated from 600 homes in the area.

Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said there were positive developments to welcome.

“The good news is that the containment they have reached is around the populated areas, so the homes are being protected,” Martin said. “This thing’s going to keep burning, and we want it to burn away from us.”

He also said he hoped residents of rural Spring Valley, where the fire first started, could return home sometime this week.

But Cal Fire Capt. Scott McLean said Tuesday it was unlikely the blaze would be under control before temperatures spiked into the triple digits and gusting winds threatened to fan lingering flames.

“The fire is going to get bigger before it’s done,” McLean said.

How much bigger was partly dependent on the weather over the next few days, which — if not exactly favorable — appeared to be “going in the right direction,” National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Kochasic said from the agency’s Sacramento office.

The weather service already has issued a fire weather watch for the region beginning Friday and lasting until Sunday evening, forecasting daytime humidity levels as low as 10 percent with gusting winds up to 35 mph.

“It would be good to get it (the fire) somewhat contained or at least smoldering by the time this wind event comes up,” Kochasic said.

The wildfire started late Saturday afternoon in the rural community of Spring Valley, located northeast of the town of Clearlake Oaks and Clear Lake, the largest freshwater lake entirely in California.

From its start shortly before 5:30 p.m. off Quail Trail toward the north end of Spring Valley, the Pawnee fire grew to 1,500 acres by the next morning and then to 7,700 acres by Sunday night, driven by gusting winds that cast embers ahead, causing spot fires. The blaze has grown incrementally since then, though its progress has slowed significantly as a greater number of fire crews joined the effort.

Twenty-two structures, including 12 homes, have been destroyed, and four structures were damaged, Cal Fire said.

Just a handful of evacuees are staying at the Red Cross Shelter at Lower Lake High School in Clearlake.

But several hundred have gathered at the Moose Lodge outside of Clearlake Oaks, where the parking lot and surrounding fields were teeming Tuesday with tents, cars and recreational vehicles spread out in the summer sun. Inside the lodge, piles of donations including games, toiletries and blankets lined tables while cots filled common spaces and residents crowded around a bar.

The grounds were housing about 200 people, 100 dogs, and a variety of other animals, including a dozen young chickens and a blue macaw, said volunteer Teresa Speakman.

Though it’s not an official evacuation center, fire-weary residents find it a comforting refuge, said volunteer Rhiannon Garcia.

“People come here because the community takes care of the community,” she said.

Still, some people had chosen not to evacuate the fire zone, including Tony Morris. He stood outside his home on Cedar Way off the closed Spring Valley Road as the generator buzzed to keep his refrigerator running. Morris, 64, chose to stay in his home of 2 ½ years as fires raged around him.

Ash landed on his nose Tuesday as he pointed to the barren ground surrounding his home — the result of hard work to eradicate fuel for fires. He’s installed sprinklers on the roof that shoot water about 80 feet, and he saturated the house when the fire broke out.

His bags are packed, and he did leave, briefly, when flames came too close Sunday afternoon. He said he drove up the road a ways and waited until firefighters subdued the fire and he felt safe enough to return. He’s been sending updates to concerned friends and neighbors about their homes, but he estimates a “couple hundred” people still remained in the area.

“Everyone keeps saying ‘Oh, my God, I’ve never seen anything like it,’” Morris said. “I think it’s gone now, I think we’re OK,” he said of the fire near his neighborhood. “The first day was bad – at night you can see the flames coming down the hill.”

In the parking lot of the Cache Creek Vineyards, Chula Vista Fire Department Battalion Chief and strike team leader trainee David Albright waited for word about deploying his crews, who had not yet been on the line. The Southern California firefighter was part of a team of 22 personnel from San Diego and Chula Vista fire departments and a U.S. Navy base, he said.

They left the San Diego area about 6 a.m. Monday, driving 13 hours to Lake County, which has been hit by major wildfires repeatedly in the past five years.

“It’s sad to see it burning like this — it’s beautiful county,” he said. “I feel bad for these people … It’s hard to believe there’s anything left to burn up here.”

The surrounding landscape was barren, with bright slashes of flame retardant cutting through ashen hills. Thick smoke hung like a cloud bank over the valley as crews battled the flames.

Most of the burned structures were in the area of Wolf Creek Road, Cache Creek Road and Pueblo Trail, Northshore Fire Chief Jay Beristianos said.

He said limited resources in the early hours were unable to defend some of the homes located on a hillside inaccessible to ground crews.

Firefighters were relying heavily on help from the air, including 15 helicopters by Tuesday night, in addition to 69 bulldozers and dozens of hand crews carving fire lines in steep terrain.

Air tankers on demand throughout the state also were laying down retardant when conditions allowed.

The region is cut by ravines and canyons, and covered in dense chaparral, dry grass and woodlands.

“A lot of steep ground, unstable ground. Hard to get your footing,” McLean said. “The ‘dozers can work in certain areas and the hand crews can work in certain areas that the dozers can’t.”

Though burning in an area with less dense development, officials warned the fire still had rural communities in its path. They included the Double Eagle Ranch subdivision between Indian Valley Reservoir and Highway 20, and areas east of Walker Ridge and along the western Colusa County border.

The Colusa County Sheriff’s Office issued an evacuation advisory on Tuesday, asking residents in the areas of Wilbur Springs, Bear Valley, Brim Road and east of Walker Ridge to be ready to leave in case evacuation becomes necessary, Lt. Mark Contreras said.

“We don’t have word about mandatory evacuations yet,” he said. “It’s going to depend on exactly if it pushes northeast or southeast.”

The evacuation warning came as Cal Fire ordered additional road blocks in the same vicinity to prevent anyone from entering the region. Hard closures were announced at Highway 20 at Bear Valley Road, Bear Valley Road at Brim Road, and Leesville Lodge Road at Brim Road.

Contreras said deputies already had been in close communication for several days with residents of the sparsely populated area, and many already had chosen to leave as the fire raged on.

The Double Eagle Ranch, a community of up to 50 homes — some off-the-grid and unpermitted, and extremely remote — has been evacuated, Martin said. He said some of the roads are so poor that state Fish and Wildlife personnel suing four-wheel-drive vehicles helped notify people.

The fire had brushed up against the community Tuesday night, Beristianos said, but crews worked through the night to prepare for a potential firefight there, cutting lines and ensuring that equipment could get in and out of roads.

Staff Writer Susan Minichiello contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or and Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or

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