Evacuation orders lifted for Lake County towns but full containment of blaze weeks away

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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.

Fuel breaks carved by firefighters on the southwestern front along Highway 20 allowed evacuation orders there to be lifted or reduced, officials said. The highway was reopened in both directions Wednesday, along with its access roads.

Further south, the River fire, at 48,920 acres and 81 percent containment, showed no growth Wednesday, and crews continued to patrol its perimeter.

The fires blanketed much of the surrounding region with smoke. In Sonoma County, a thick haze obscured the mountains to the east, marking the heaviest inundation of smoke since the Mendocino Complex fires began July 27. Air quality was poor across the Bay Area, with another Spare the Air Day designation in place today.

Parlet and his wife, Deana, the owners of the Lucerne grocery story, were evacuated from their Lakeport home soon after the fires started. They camped out at their store and remained there 10 days when the east side of the lake fell under an advisory warning followed by a mandatory evacuation order.

The store’s generator staved off power outages, so the freezers didn’t fail and no food was lost.

“We’ve been sleeping in the middle aisle of the store. The first three days with no rubber mat,” he said, grateful that a customer brought them a blow-up mattress.

Still, just as firefighters appear to be turning a corner on the two blazes, another round of severe fire weather is due for the area.

A red flag weather warning issued by the National Weather Service for Mendocino Complex fire zone is set to go into effect this afternoon and last until Saturday evening.

“Our concerns are the winds are going to be picking up. Those winds could cause rapid growth of the fires,” said Eric Kurth, meteorologist for the weather service based in Sacramento.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. Reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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