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Red flag warning worries firefighters battling Mendocino Complex fires

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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.

Kirsch, who makes “strange electronic music” and collaborates with musicians worldwide, said his father, Keith, and mother Janet were given enough warning to gather their carpentry and art supplies. Keith Kirsch built a major portion of their home on Armstrong Street, his son said. The fire came within 3 miles of the family’s home while they stayed with friends in Kelseyville.

“It was dreadful,” Alan Kirsch said. “Once we were able to be at my friend’s house and process what was happening, we felt lucky enough to have our friends give us a place where we could have the luxury of getting a few emotions out.”

The family’s 14-year-old cat, Thunder, didn’t make the journey, Kirsch said. Afflicted with lymphoma before the fires began, exposure to poor quality air damaged the cat’s health further. The family was able to bury him in the backyard before they evacuated.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, who represents Lake and Mendocino counties, expressed sympathy for evacuees who’ve spent the week living with uncertainty.

“It’s one of the most stressful and emotional times in a person’s life,” McGuire said. “They’re evacuated, they’re unsure what’s going to happen, and it’s a scary time.”

Evacuations are still in place for wide swaths of both Mendocino and Lake counties, including Upper Lake, Bachelor Valley, Nice and North Lakeport. A large portion of the Mendocino National Forest has also been closed off to all vehicles and visitors from Lake Pillsbury in the north to Bartlett Springs in the south. Campgrounds in this region of the forest were ordered to evacuate on Thursday afternoon.

McGuire has been to the fire line multiple days over the past week, and lauded the fire department and Sheriff’s Office for doing “one hell of a job” protecting the area, from flames as well as criminal activity — a number of arrests were made of those attempting to break into evacuated homes and businesses this week.

McGuire cautioned residents returning to their homes Thursday night to remain vigilant, throw out all food, keep respiratory masks on hand and ensure that they’re signed up with an emergency alert service.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” McGuire said. “This fire has been downright ornery, and we’ve seen flare-ups every afternoon since it started.”

You can reach Staff Writers Meghan Herbst at 707-521-5250 or meghan.herbst@pressdemocrat.com, and Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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