With communities protected but miles of forests standing on the edge of flames, the 10-day-old infernos in Lake County together have reached the top ranks of major California wildfires.
The two blazes, jointly known as the Mendocino Complex fires, grew Sunday by nearly 38,000 acres to encompass 267,000 acres, according to Cal Fire. That ranks them as the fourth largest wildfire in state history.
The largest fire, last December’s Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, consumed nearly 282,000 acres, or just 15,000 more than the Lake County fires.
Those numbers alone sound sobering for a North Coast region that already has suffered the most destructive fire in state history: last October’s Tubbs fire, which burned 5,600 structures and caused 22 deaths. That blaze was part of a series of North Bay wildfires that claimed 40 lives and burned over 6,000 homes.
The larger of the two Lake County fires, the Ranch fire, “will be burning for days,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg.
He noted the Ranch fire alone had grown by roughly 100,000 acres in the last two days and that it has “a heavy fuel load in its path” in the Mendocino National Forest.
“There is a high likelihood that the Ranch fire will eclipse the Thomas fire and become the largest fire in California history,” McGuire said.
The two fires both began July 27. The lesser fire, the River Fire, has burned almost 49,999 acres. The Ranch Fire has consumed 218,000 acres.
Fire officials reported Sunday evening the two fires were 33 percent contained, compared to 32 percent a day earlier.
The fires together have destroyed 68 homes, 13 more than reported Saturday. However, it wasn’t reported whether those homes actually burned Sunday or simply had been found from days earlier as the investigation of the damage continues.
Despite little growth in containment, fire officials characterized Sunday as a day of progress. They reopened Highway 20, a major route between the north end of Clear Lake and Highway 101 north of Ukiah. However, most side roads off the highway remain under mandatory evacuation.
On Sunday, firefighters also kept watch over miles of fire lines protecting communities on the north and eastern side of the lake. And they managed to further contain the River fire, allowing officials to lift mandatory evacuations for an area near Lakeport.
Weather conditions also proved more favorable Sunday, with the high temperature in Lakeport at 93 degrees.
“We’re catching our breath a little bit, which is good,” Sean Kavanaugh, part of the Cal Fire incident command, told viewers over a live Facebook broadcast Sunday evening.
However, the necessary emphasis on protecting communities means firefighters still must contain the flames moving north into the national forest. Daren Dalrymple, who represents the forest service in the firefighting efforts, told Facebook viewers that firefighters eventually will need to build fire lines along a forested area that stretches for “50 air miles.”
He warned Lake County residents that even after they are allowed to return home, “you’re still going to have a lot of smoke” from the burning forestlands.
The two fires have left a massive swath of north Lake County under mandatory evacuation. By Sunday morning the two fires had forced over 23,000 residents from their homes, though some near Lakeport were allowed to return.