The Ranch fire continued to move Friday away from communities on Clear Lake’s northern and eastern shore, spelling further relief for thousands of people who were only let back into their once-imperiled towns on Wednesday, nearly two weeks after the massive blaze erupted.
More than 3,500 firefighters remain assigned to the Mendocino Complex fires, the largest in California history. The combined inferno, including the River fire to the west of Clear Lake, has burned more than 312,000 acres — nearly 490 square miles — destroyed 119 homes and 110 other structures.
More than 1,500 buildings remain threatened, down significantly from the more than 9,000 structures that were considered at risk Friday morning.
“The crews have been making really good progress and putting in containment lines,” spokesman Will Powers said.
Mandatory evacuation orders remained in place only for residents from around Lake Pillsbury and Potter Valley in Mendocino County, as well as others in the Indian Valley Reservoir/Leesburg area of Colusa County.
Many of those hit hardest by the fires, including residents clustered in a rural area north of Upper Lake and around Spring Valley, “didn’t have insurance,” said Jim Steele, the Lake County supervisor who represents the area.
A one-stop Local Assistance Center opened Friday in Lucerne was mobbed with people needing help with fire assistance, insurance, food, document replacement and other matters, Steele said.
“The problem is for a lot of these folks, they didn’t have much to start with,” Steele said.
The Ranch fire, the larger of the two fires, grew to 263,527 acres by Friday night and was 53 percent contained. It continued to burn on the northern edge in the Mendocino National Forest and in Colusa County on the east.
The River fire, at nearly 49,000 acres, saw little growth Friday, with containment at 90 percent.
Full containment of the entire complex is anticipated Sept. 1, Cal Fire said. The two fires began July 27 in Mendocino County and burned across northern Lake County into Colusa County.
Steele estimated about 13,000 people from his district alone were under evacuation orders at the peak of fire activity.
Hundreds likely stayed behind, having nowhere else to go, or standing their ground to care for pets and livestock that couldn’t be rescued during an evacuation. The Ranch fire posed the greatest threat to towns on the north shore of Clear Lake, including Upper Lake, Lucerne and Nice, where the homes are clustered together.
“If we’d have lost one house, we’ve have lost them all,” Steele said.
Crews on the outskirts of town carved fuel breaks along the same lines established during the 1996 Fork fire.
“I would characterize it this way: The people who could least afford a loss were spared, and yeah, we dodged a bullet,” Steele said. “I don’t know how we could have recovered, with this many folks without insurance — this many folks in kind of a needy environment. It’s sobering.”
Residents spared by the fire have nevertheless returned to smoke damage, spoiled food and other hardships. Steele said food assistance is available for those who need help, and residents of Lucerne are being provided 2,000 gallons of free water so they can wash down ash on roofs and decking, avoiding the need for leaf-blowers, which only scatter toxins, Steele said.