Firefighter dies in Mendocino Complex fires
The largest wildfire in California history claimed its first victim — a firefighter from Utah — Monday evening as it continued its relentless march north, threatening popular vacation hamlets around Lake Pillsbury in the Mendocino National Forest.
Sean Kavanaugh, an incident commander for Cal Fire, said the firefighter was working on an “active portion” of the Ranch fire when he was injured.
“The firefighter was airlifted to a local hospital where he succumbed to his injuries,” Kavanaugh said during a 10 p.m. news conference Monday. “We are extremely heartbroken for this loss.”
Kavanaugh said Cal Fire was “dedicated to investigating what happened and will release more information as it becomes available.” He said firefighters mourn the death even as they continue to “battle California’s largest wildfire that continues to burn extremely steep and remote terrain.”
Firefighters, some of them Lake Pillsbury area residents, worked feverishly to stop the advance of the Mendocino Complex fires and protect homes at the southern end of the lake, just south of Scott Dam. Lake Pillsbury residents said the fire already had destroyed some structures in the area.
But as of Monday evening, the fire was still some distance from the roughly 200 residences — most of them vacation homes — in the gated Lake Pillsbury Ranch community on the north end of the lake.
“I have great optimism in my fire department,” said Lee Ann McKay, a Lake Pillsbury Ranch resident and member of the homeowners association. “The fire is really big, and you just can’t predict it. I wish I could. I could sleep better.”
The Ranch, the larger of the two blazes that make up the Mendocino Complex fires, has burned 300,970 acres and currently is 59 percent contained. Just south of the Ranch fire, the River fire — with 48,920 acres burned — is now 100 percent contained.
Combined, the set of fires have burned 349,890 acres and destroyed 146 homes and 118 other structures. As of Monday night, though, the Ranch fire continued to threaten some 1,025 structures, including the homes surrounding Lake Pillsbury.
The Lake Pillsbury, about hour and 15 minutes northeast of Ukiah, is under a mandatory evacuation. Many of the area’s year-round residents have evacuated but some remain, including Edie and Nick Uram, owners of the Soda Creek Store, an oasis of food, fuel and goodwill just west of the lake.
The Urams, who have owned the store for 30 years, said they’ve been allowed to stay as a resource to local firefighters and residents who haven’t left.
“All my firemen are right here. When they start running, I will too,” Edie Uram said.
She said she and her husband have their belongings packed and ready to go in their vehicles.
“Basically, we really have to be here,” she said. “We have fuel, Wi-Fi and telephones.”
Buzz Ogneff, 68, who works at the store and is a part of the Lake Pillsbury fire department, said he has been relaying information to residents.
“I’m too old to be climbing the hills and pulling hose, so I do a lot of support,” he said. “People come for information since I have radio contact with everybody.”