Lower temperatures and a clearing sky allowed firefighters to unleash new aerial attacks on Northern California’s two major fires Monday, but officials warned that the blazes that have killed at least one person and burned hundreds of homes since last week may be just the beginning of California’s fire problems.
“We don’t see an end to fire season for months to come,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Director Ken Pimlott warned Monday as the state marshaled an army of 11,000 firefighters to battle 12 major blazes in the state that have consumed more than 700 square miles.
The two latest – the Butte fire that broke out Wednesday and is burning in Amador and Calaveras counties, and the Valley fire that erupted Saturday in Lake County – have destroyed hundreds of homes and killed at least one Lake County woman, although officials said the death toll could rise.
“We only have one confirmation,” said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, “but we do have people who are unaccounted for.”
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The woman confirmed killed in the fire was an elderly, disabled resident of the Cobb area who was unable to get out of her home. The Lake County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement Monday that a call to help the woman came into its dispatch center Saturday at 7:12 p.m., almost six hours after the fire erupted.
“At 7:29 p.m. officers and deputies responded to the area, but were unable to reach the subdivision as it had already been engulfed by flames,” Lt. Steve Brooks said in the statement. “The resident was apparently unable to self-evacuate and responders were unable to make it to her home before the fire engulfed the structure.”
By late Monday, Cal Fire’s latest estimates said the Butte fire had consumed 71,523 acres, destroyed 135 homes and 79 other structures, and threatened 6,400 homes. It was 35 percent contained.
The Valley fire was at 62,000 acres and had destroyed 400 homes and hundreds of other buildings, was threatening an additional 9,000 homes and had killed at least one person. It was at 10 percent containment. That blaze also damaged cooling towers at The Geysers, a vital power facility for Northern California and the largest geothermal facility in the world.
Brett Kerr, a spokesman for Calpine, which owns the 45-square-mile facility situated along the Lake and Sonoma county line, said damage to wooden cooling towers had been caused by the fire but that the power-generating plants were not damaged.
“The powerhouses themselves – the buildings that house the steam turbines that generate the electricity – are undamaged as far as we know at this time,” he said.
The facility generates about 60 percent of the electricity needed for the North Coast from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border. It can produce 725 megawatts of power, enough for a city the size of San Francisco, Kerr said. The five plants that have been affected generate 207 megawatts.
Kerr said some plants are not operational and that others are running at reduced capacity but said he did not know how badly the fire had damaged the facility’s ability to provide power.
Four firefighters suffered burns in the first few minutes of the Valley fire, and officials stressed that firefighters have been hampered by residents who have refused to obey evacuation orders.
“Quite simply and directly, they’re not (cooperating) and these fires are extremely fast-moving ...,” Pimlott said. “We know folks were not heeding evacuation orders to leave, and the challenge to that (is) firefighters are always going to protect lives and property first.
“We had individuals walking down the street after their homes had burned and their cars had burned and had no place to go, and we pulled them out.”
Gov. Jerry Brown said he had spoken to veteran firefighters who expressed surprise at the speed with which fires have been expanding in drought-stricken areas, and that residents need to follow orders when told to flee.
“This is damn serious stuff,” Brown said. “People have to leave when they get word.”
Cal Fire estimated that as many as 19,000 people had been evacuated because of the Butte and Valley fires. Firefighters have had to contend with exploding ammunition and fireworks in some of the empty homes.
In Lake County, dozens of people gathered in a dirt parking lot Monday afternoon outside a CHP roadblock in Lower Lake along Highway 29.
Betty Kuckowicz, a Twin Lakes resident for 22 years, was among those chafing at the fact that she was not being allowed to return home.
“I have a car, I can leave again if I need to,” she said.
Kuckowicz said she fled her home Sunday and knows it survived because her husband later sneaked behind the fire lines to check.
Jessica Armstrong, who lived on a ranch in Hidden Valley for 15 years, said her home was destroyed. “It’s really frustrating, but I guess they’re doing the best they can,” she said at the roadblock.
Along her neighborhood’s streets, many homes were spared while others burned. “That’s how fires happen,” she said.
In Calaveras County, some people have been displaced since Wednesday when the fire started. Frustrations were beginning to boil over Monday among those who still cannot return to their neighborhoods or even find out if their homes are still standing.
Terry Jones evacuated a 5-acre property on East Emigrant Trail four days ago and said he is frustrated at not being able to get any word on the status of his house or whether he can return.
“I evacuated because there was ash all over my front yard,” Jones said. He left a boat, two trucks and a Lincoln Continental on the property, but took two pairs of pants and two dogs with him.
Jones and his partner, Joella Neal, have been living at the Holiday Inn in Oakdale since Friday. The owner of the motel has been letting them stay there for an adjusted price of $70 a night.
“But we’re almost broke now,” said Jones, who is on disability. “We want to go home, but we’re stuck.”
Other evacuees have sought refuge wherever they can, including the streets of San Andreas.
“Its hard to go through town,” said Ed Stewart, co-founder and director of the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary near San Andreas. “You have people living in tents. It looks like most of San Andreas is sleeping in parking lots around town. I don’t know what people are going to do.”
Flames got within a couple miles of the PAWS sanctuary, but the eight elephants and other exotic animals living there are all safe, Stewart said.
“It’s something that we plan on every year,” Stewart said of PAWS’ fire protection efforts. “We have goats that come in. We hire goats that come in and eat down fire hazards.
“We have fire breaks that we cut every year all along the animal enclosures, and we mow early in the year before it’s too dry. We have 60,000 gallons of water stored here, plus a lake that we can draw from. We have our own firetruck that I bought from the local fire department that holds 3,000 gallons (of water).”
Stewart said workers who have been evacuated from their homes continue to care for the animals at the 2,300-acre sanctuary west of San Andreas.
“One of our workers, he lives right up in Mountain Ranch and he still doesn’t know if his house is there or not,” Stewart said. “He thinks probably not.
“I talked to him this morning and said, ‘You know, you really don’t have to be at work.’ But he was more worried about taking care of our animals than his own situation. You get almost that 9/11 feeling where everybody all of a sudden was pulling for each other.”
Stewart said he stopped by a local post office and saw a woman laughing as she walked out with a package that had come for her. “This is my only possession,” she told him. “Everything else is lost.”
At the Angels Camp Campground, evacuees have gathered with hundreds of trucks, trailers and tents in what resembles a subdued carnival presence. Among the evacuated are more than 300 horses, sheep, goats and dogs.
Most of the people there had been at the camp for more than a day, with some, such as Glencoe resident Carol Oz, living there with her two dogs since Wednesday. A former wildland firefighter, Oz said she has never seen a blaze bigger than the Butte fire.
She left her house on Independence Road in a rush. “I left my home on Wednesday at noon because I looked out and could see this orange tower of heat and light that was 10 times taller than the tallest tree on my property,” she said.
Cal Fire’s Pimlott said the state has experienced 1,500 more fires this year than by the same time last year, and the fire behavior is extreme because of the drought.
“I can tell you whether you’re a rookie firefighter with your first year or you’re a seasoned veteran, everyone is saying the same thing: (they) have not seen fires move and spread at this pace,” Pimlott said.
Firefighters from across California and the West are being brought in to help, with teams from Nevada state fire units coming in and federal firefighters from the Pacific Northwest.
“We’ve gone outside of California to get an additional 50 fire engines from other states,” Pimlott said.
The state Department of Finance said Monday it has approved $12.4 million for Cal Fire from the state’s emergency fund to pay for additional firefighters through December, helicopter use and other firefighting resources.
But the new resources will do little to immediately help the refugees from the fire.
“I have been to the evacuation shelters and seen the same people every day,” said Cal Fire information officer Joshua Rubinstein. “There is an expression of hopelessness on their faces.”
- Location: Lake County
- Size: 62,000 acres
- Containment: 10 percent
- Structures threatened: 9,000
- Structures destroyed: Hundreds of homes, hundreds of other structures
- Deaths: 1 civilian
- Injuries: 4 firefighters
- Fire personnel: 1,448
- Location: Amador and Calaveras counties
- Size: 71,000 acres
- Containment: 35 percent
- Structures threatened: 6,400
- Structures destroyed: 135 residences, 79 outbuildings
- Fire personnel: 4,409
Source: Cal Fire