Mendocino Complex fires in Mendocino, Lake counties remain unchecked, surpass 68,000 acres

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Two wildfires bearing down on shoreline communities of Clear Lake doubled in size again Monday, forcing thousands more residents to flee their homes as flames that have torched more than 68,000 acres of rugged, rural landscape encroached on more populated areas of Lake County.

Nearly 2,000 personnel posted on the fire lines Monday evening had so far prevented the River fire from entering Lakeport, the county seat, though flames had moved within a mile of city limits, officials said.

But fire licking at the edges of Upper Lake destroyed several homes Monday evening at the Upper Lake Rancheria. The River fire and the larger Ranch fire to its north were continuing to spread eastward, prompting sweeping new evacuations to clear people out of harm’s way as the fires burned into a fourth day and remained just 5 percent contained.

“We’re going to be at this for quite a while,” Lake County Supervisor Jim Steele said Monday. “It’s a big fire. It (the River fire) is threatening two towns. And it’s going to be a while before we let these folks back in.”

For a region still reeling from a series of catastrophic wildfires over the past four years, the arrival of two new wildfires has both reopened wounds and reinforced practices well-learned through repetition, Steele said.

Clay Godbout of Kelseyville is one who knows the drill.

Leaning against the doorframe of his screen-printing shop on Monday, he described working all morning with his six employees to pack shirts, a portable printer and other inventory into a caravan of five cars and a trailer so they could evacuate when the time came, as it did Monday afternoon.

He’s no stranger to the process, having been forced to evacuate from his previous Clearlake location and now his new rented location six times in recent years.

“When it’s not smoky, this is a beautiful county,” he said. “I’ve been through this rodeo — it’s just what you do.”

But the exhaustion has been clearly visible on people’s faces, as they gathered at evacuation shelters over the weekend, state Sen. Mike McGuire said.

“There is not a county in this state that has faced such destruction and challenge from wildland fires as Lake County,” McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said Monday, his voice cracking with fatigue and emotion. “This is the fourth year in a row that a massive wildland fire event has struck Lake County. It’s devastating, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s tough.”

The two fires were sparked across the county line in Mendocino County not quite an hour apart at mid-day Friday.

The Ranch fire ignited at a private ranch on the south end of Potter Valley and by Monday evening had reached 45,000 acres, expanding in multiple directions on the north side of Highway 20 as it pushed toward the town of Upper Lake on Clear Lake’s northern shore and the Mendocino National Forest to the north of it.

The River fire, started near Hopland, grew east along the north side of Highway 175, crossing rugged forestland and dense brush as it headed into the lake basin reaching for Lakeport and points along the southerly shore.

Aided by high temperatures, low humidity, very dry fuels and regular afternoon winds that have thwarted containment efforts, the fires arrived amid extreme weather conditions around California, where 17 active wildfires continue to overwhelm available resources.

In particular, the week-old Carr fire near Redding, which sped quickly into heavily developed areas, demanded large numbers of firefighting personnel, aircraft and other equipment, officials said. Now at more than 103,000 acres, it has destroyed more than 1,000 structures, including 818 homes, and killed six people.

But in the early hours of the Mendocino/Lake fires, the lack of available resources proved frustrating, fire officials said.

“It doesn’t matter how big or how remote or how populated, if it’s where you live — if it’s your town — it’s a top priority,” said Todd Derum, a Cal Fire division chief for Sonoma County who is helping to manage the two blazes, known collectively as the Mendocino Complex fires.

Air support also was in short supply in the first two days, yet remarkably, structural losses remained comparatively low despite the fires’ speedy advancement across the Cow Mountain area into Lake County.

The wildfires still threatened more than 10,000 structures but had destroyed just seven homes and three outbuildings as of 7 p.m. Monday, Cal Fire said.

“There is a limited amount of firefighting resources in the country, and it’s not just California that is burning at the moment, and there’s a lot of competition for these firefighting resources,” McGuire said. “California has more firefighting resources than almost every other state. I think we have the most experienced firefighting fleet in the country.

“But the priority for air attack is life and safety, and Redding is having their own North Bay firestorm even as we speak,” McGuire said, referencing fires that burned 137 square miles of Sonoma County last October. “In the early days of this fire, we were seeing hundreds of homes burning in Redding, and it made sense to have additional air attack in Redding doing life safety and protecting structures.”

But by Sunday, more aircraft had become available for the Mendocino Complex, and personnel numbers have continued creeping up, reaching 820 by Sunday morning, less than 48 hours after the fires’ start, 1,379 by Sunday night and 1,999 by Monday night.

With greater containment being reached on other fires, more fire personnel and equipment are expected to become available, and additional fire resources from at least 15 other states were either in California already or headed this way, officials said.

“We’re pushing whatever resources are available that direction,” Deputy Cal Fire Chief Scott McLean said, “so as each fire winds down, the resources on those fires more than likely will be redirected toward the Mendocino Complex, plus resources continue to come from out of state.”

In addition, the National Guard was ramping up to provide hand crews for California’s firefighting efforts, he said.

Additional resources will be welcome as fire officials focus on building miles of bulldozer lines aimed at containing fires driven by extreme weather conditions.

McGuire described hearing about a local bulldozer driver from his district who was digging lines on a ridgeline Sunday with flames coming so close to him that a helicopter had to hover overhead to dump water while he worked.

“It’s hot. The winds are high, and what we saw today are spot fires,” he said. “Embers are being tossed in front of the fire lines like we saw in the North Bay firestorm.”

Newly evacuated areas included Kelseyville and rural, neighboring communities of Finley and Big Valley, on the lake’s south shore.

The order to leave was issued after flames from the River fire that were pushing up against fire lines on Highway 175 broke through at a weak spot outside Lakeport, where crews had struggled to build defenses in very steep terrain and dense fuels, Cal Fire said.

South shore communities and subdivisions east of Kelseyville were put under evacuation advisory, as well. They included Soda Bay, Riviera Heights, Buckingham Park, Riviera West and Clear Lake Riviera.

On the north shore, in the path of the Ranch fire, evacuation advisories were issued for Lucerne and Paradise Valley, and then the entire northern end of Lake County, in anticipation of that fire’s push into the Mendocino National Forest. The Lake Pillsbury Basin and surrounding areas were included in the advisory notice.

The advisory comes amid warnings the raging fire was continuing its push east and north, producing what Cal Fire Division Chief Charlie Blankenheim said would likely be “significant growth.”

Residents in the national forest and anywhere north of Bartlett Springs Road were advised to leave the area or be prepared to go in the event of a mandatory evacuation.

About 650 people sought the safety of four evacuation shelters in the county as of Monday evening, County Administrator Carol Huchingson said. They included about 90 who had briefly settled at Kelseyville High School only to pack up Monday and move again as the town was evacuated.

In the parking lot of an evacuation center at Twin Pine Casino and Hotel in Middletown, Jayne Lyon stood in the heat with her miniature Australian shepherds, Maeve and Angus. She and her husband, Jeff, evacuated from their North Lakeport home Sunday and were forced to flee from a relative’s home in Kelseyville on Monday.

The yard of her mother’s house in Redwood Valley burned last year, and she had just returned home from Auburn on Sunday shortly before she had to evacuate.

“I’m kind of numb,” the 57-year-old said. “Everyone is safe, and that’s the main thing, that the people get out and the animals get out. I’m not so much worried about the other stuff. I do worry about the firefighters.”

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