Thousands of residents in communities along the shore of Clear Lake were allowed to return home Wednesday after officials lifted evacuation orders across a wide swath of Lake County imperiled over nearly the past two weeks by a historic wildfire.
The move was welcomed by residents stretching from Upper Lake on Clear Lake’s north shore to Clearlake Oaks on its east side. But it came amid the heavy buzz of aircraft making water and fire retardant drops on nearby mountain ridges. State authorities cautioned Wednesday that it would take at least another three weeks, until Sept. 1, to fully contain the inferno, the largest on record in California.
“I can see a little bit of glow on the ridge,” said Teresa Pennewell, who has lived in Lucerne for 16 years but had never been forced to flee the town by wildfire — an all too common occurrence for others in Lake County.
“We could hear the roar from the fire — the sound it made — it was loud,” Pennewell said. “That’s what scared me, was the sound it made.”
Up to 9,000 residents were allowed to return home across Lake County on Wednesday, according to county Supervisor Jim Steele, whose districts includes the affected communities of Lucerne, Upper Lake, Nice, Pepperwood Grove, Paradise Valley, Glenhaven and Clearlake Oaks.
“We’re getting close to feeling relieved but we don’t quit until we get everybody back into their homes,” said Steele. “And then for those who don’t have homes, we get local area assistance centers going.”
As of 7 p.m. Wednesday, the Mendocino Complex fires had burned 302,086 acres, destroyed 119 homes and still threatened more than 9,200 homes, according to Cal Fire.
More than 1,200 people still remain under evacuation orders, most of them east of Clear Lake, including about 900 in Spring Valley and 200 in the community of Double Eagle.
The relief of residents Wednesday was palpable, said Kenny Parlet, owner of Lakeview Supermarket and Deli in Lucerne.
“A lot of people are so relieved to be out of their evacuation centers, the sigh of relief is unbelievable,” Parlet said. Many returnees were coming in for supplies, he said. “One guy said ‘This cherry Pepsi is going to be the best tasting cherry Pepsi I ever drank.’ ”
The shoreline communities had made up the bulk of the people that remained under evacuation until the orders were lifted Wednesday. They remained under an advisory, warned to be ready to flee again if the Ranch fire, the largest of the two blazes, rears up.
At their peak, evacuation orders last Friday covered about 19,000 people across the fire zone, which has stretched from Mendocino County on the western front to Colusa County on the eastern boundary.
Growth in the fire complex occurred on the northern end of the Ranch fire, which stood at 253,166 acres Wednesday evening. Containment had reached 46 percent, up from 20 percent on Tuesday.
Cal Fire said fire crews focused their efforts on the southeast corner of the Ranch fire, near Indian Valley, and had some success containing the eastern section of the fire. Firefighters also worked around Pine Mountain Project and toward the Snow Mountain Wilderness on the northeast front.