Firefighter dies in Mendocino Complex fires

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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.”

Ogneff said the fire was south of the Eel River, near Scott Dam. Ogneff described Lake Pillsbury as a heavily wooded area with a picturesque lake.

“It’s pretty much a beast,” he said of the Ranch fire. “This fire doesn’t seem to want to quit.”

Mike Roghi, a Santa Rosa resident whose family owns a cabin in Lake Pillsbury, said he’s concerned about the winds in the area, which kick up in the afternoon. The area surrounding the lake is characterized by steep, rugged terrain.

“You can’t really get in there to fight (the fire),” said Roghi, whose parents 35 years ago built the cabin that he and his sister frequent.

“There’s nothing I can do but cross my fingers,” he said.

McKay said she felt confident firefighters would be able to halt the Ranch fire’s northward progression. While most of the residences in the gated community are summer homes, she said about 30 “full-timers” live in the community.

She said as of Monday evening there were about 10 Lake Pillsbury Ranch residents still in the evacuation zone.

McKay said she had no other choice but to remain to protect her home. It’s currently uninsured, she said, because her insurance company canceled her policy “a couple of fires ago.”

“We do have an action plan for getting out should it be necessary,” she said. “There’s an airstrip here, a fairly wide airstrip for planes, that goes toward the lake and is clear of trees.”

Some 3,100 firefighters are assigned to the pair of wildfires, which began July 27.

Fire officials estimate full containment of the Ranch fire by Sept. 1.

Fire officials said fire crews had some success against the Ranch fire Monday, tying in containment lines south of the Eel River. Fire crews also focused their efforts protecting southern areas of Lake Pillsbury, as well as the Rice Fork Summer Homes near the fire’s perimeter.

On the east side of the blaze, crews worked to bring the Ranch fire below and west of Lodoga Stonyford Road and back into the Mendocino National Forest, fire officials said.

Lake County Supervisor Jim Steele, whose district includes much of north Lake County, said he was saddened by the news of the firefighter’s death.

“I am really sorry to hear that,” he said. “That’s really hard to hear.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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