Red flag warning worries firefighters battling Mendocino Complex fires
Residents in a large section of Lakeport were allowed to return home Thursday for the first time in four days as a raging wildfire moved away from the beleaguered city, but firefighters braced for dangerous conditions Friday that could fuel an outbreak of explosive fires across the region as forecasters issued a red flag warning for much of the North Coast.
Gusty winds of up to 30 mph will strafe the region, temperatures will rise and humidity levels will plummet, according to the National Weather Service. The treacherous mix of dry, hot, windy conditions that feed fires triggered a red flag warning that will begin at 11 a.m. Friday and last until 11 p.m. Saturday.
“Those weather predictions are the most concerning things for us,” Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said. “Because fires have been moving for basically two reasons: the wind and the fuel.”
The two wildfires burning along the Mendocino-Lake county border, the River and Ranch fires, grew to a combined 125,168 acres Thursday, consuming an additional 30,256 acres during the day, Cal Fire officials said. The fires, dubbed the Mendocino Complex fires, have destroyed 16 homes and 17 other structures.
An additional 200 firefighters joined the battle Thursday, when nearly 3,100 people attempted to build defensive lines and extinguish flames threatening 8,200 structures in the two counties. They contained 50 percent of the River fire, which started Friday afternoon outside Hopland, but only 33 percent of the larger Ranch fire, which began an hour earlier northeast of Ukiah.
The Lake County Sheriff’s Office expanded evacuations northeast of Clear Lake Thursday evening as the Ranch fire continued its advance. Residents of the Long Valley, High Valley and Spring Valley areas were ordered to leave their homes.
To the west, the mandatory evacuation of the south part of Lakeport was downgraded to an advisory, allowing residents to return home for the first time since Sunday.
Lakeport resident Pamela Kane, 38, was excited by the decision. She had evacuated to her family’s ranch in Kelseyville, and invited several friends and their families to stay with them. When authorities ordered the evacuation of Kelseyville, Kane and a few others stayed on the ranch but the oldest and the youngest were sent to stay with family in the Sacramento Valley.
“People want to get back home,” she said.
Kane said she and other Lakeport residents didn’t think they’d be evacuated for so long; they thought they would be allowed to return sooner, but the fire kept flaring up each day with the afternoon winds.
“We were kind of thinking that the fire was going to burn through,” she said. “But every day has been a new day wondering what’s going to happen and where, who is going to lose their home. We’ve had friends in both the Upper Lake and Lakeport areas who have lost homes.”
Kane, whose husband, Dan, is a firefighter for the Lakeport Fire District, said her excitement about going home is checked by the thought that fire season has only just begun.
“For us, this is just the beginning of fire season, and people need to continue to be safe and aware and have a plan,” Kane said.
Lifelong Lakeport resident Alan Kirsch, 29, said he was able to grab his keyboard, two synthesizers — one a rare x0xb0x (pronounced “zoxbox”) that makes “weird, laser-y, dribbly acid sounds,” — and a mixing board, along with the family cats Gracie and Thunder.