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Ranch fire pushes east and south in Lake County, triggering new evacuation orders

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The return of severe fire weather fanned flames in Lake County on Friday and forced new evacuation orders affecting thousands of people, with firefighters bracing for what was expected to be another difficult day, the ninth since a volatile pair of wildfires ignited in neighboring Mendocino County.

As forecast, the gusty winds and low humidity helped fuel another large run of the two Mendocino Complex fires, which grew to a combined 157,450 acres. Nearly 90 structures have been destroyed, including 41 homes, though officials cautioned that a closer evaluation of damage in some areas had only just begun.

More than 9,000 structures remain under threat, Cal Fire reported, and more than 16,000 people remain under mandatory evacuation orders, according to Lake and Mendocino County sheriff’s offices.

Friday’s weather fed another display of extreme fire growth in Lake County, which has seen more than a third of its landscape burn in wildfires over the past three years. The scars now nearly ring Clear Lake at the county’s center, with the heaviest damage on the southern and southeastern end, where a devastating series of fires raged in 2015.

The new evacuations covered communities on the lake’s northeastern shore, including Lucerne, Clearlake Oaks and Pepperwood Grove, all threatened by the larger Ranch fire, which has been pushing east and south through the Mendocino National Forest and other rural, lightly settled terrain.

It churned through an additional 30,000 acres Thursday night and Friday and had burned a total of 115,250 acres by nightfall. Containment was at 28 percent.

On its southern front, the Ranch fire was headed toward an area that already burned this year in the Pawnee fire, which began in late June and was fully contained July 9.

Cal Fire Division Chief Mike Wilson said the Ranch fire’s progress in that area should stall if it reaches the Pawnee fire scar.

“That will really help in that area, because of the reduced fuel there,” said Wilson. “There might be pockets of fuel left....The Pawnee fire burned pretty clean and should be an excellent fuel break.”

On the western shore of Clear Lake, the River fire’s northward movement spurred an evacuation order for an area northeast of Cow Mountain. It had burned 42,200 acres Friday, increasing by approximately 1,000 acres. Containment of the River fire remained at 50 percent.

Lake County officials lifted mandatory evacuation orders for residents along the fire’s eastern front, including Highland Springs, southwest Lakeport and Scotts Creek. An advisory evacuation was still in effect for those areas, and authorities warned residents returning to the area to remain vigilant, and to avoid contact with ash and debris which contain high concentrations of toxic substances.

Lake County Supervisor Jim Steele, whose district includes Upper Lake, Nice, Lucerne, Clearlake Oaks and Glenhaven, spent the morning touring the Ranch fire’s burn zone north of Upper Lake, assessing the extensive damage.

An uptick Friday in the number of destroyed homes resulted from a more accurate assessment of the fire’s damage, he said. Steele was personally involved in that effort. Shortly after 10 a.m., he was headed up to White Rock Road to take pictures of local residents’ homes. People in his district have been sending him messages asking him to check on their properties.

“I’ll send pictures of their homes so they feel more comfortable,” he said.

Steele stressed that the Ranch fire had been “a disaster for each person who lost a home.” But firefighters have been successful in saving many more.

“I tell you what, for the size of this fire, we’ve had minimal loss,” he said.

Those properties where owners have made concerted efforts to clear brush, grass and debris near their homes are more often where firefighters choose to make their stand, he noted. Without such landscape work, homes in the path of flames can be a lost cause.

“Once that catches fire, that house is gone,” Steele said.

On Friday, officials announced that the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center in Mendocino County had seen the majority of its land burn July 27, when the River fire first erupted.

Firefighters who arrived quickly on scene were able to save the center’s homes and an administrative building, according to Hannah Bird, the center’s community educator. Five hundred sheep, six guard dogs and one sheepdog were also rescued from the flames, she said in a statement.

The research center has conducted a number of studies on prescribed fire practices and worked with the public to promote fire-safe land management.

“Our staff were amazing. They worked together first and foremost to protect the residents who live on site and assist in evacuation,” Bird said. “We were so grateful that Cal Fire arrived on site soon afterwards and saved our homes and offices.”

Combined, the two fires now exceed in size the Tubbs, Nuns and Atlas fires that raged through Sonoma and Napa counties in October.

A red-flag weather warning was set to remain in effect until at least late Saturday, according to Mike Kochasic, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento. Kochasic said gusts of up to 35 mph are expected, with temperatures likely in the upper 80s in Lake County.

Crews have increased substantially over the course of the past week. An additional 217 fire personnel were added Friday, bringing the total force up to 3,449 people.

An additional evacuation center opened at Mountain Vista Middle School in Kelseyville. Evacuees can also seek shelter at Mendocino College, Lower Lake and Middletown high schools and the Twin Pine Casino.

You can reach Staff Writer Meghan Herbst at 707-521-5250 or meghan.herbst@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Megheherbst. You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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