The battle against Pawnee Fire captured in dramatic images
Fueled by high temperatures, dry grasslands and gusting winds, a series of wildfires continued to burn across Northern California counties Monday as firefighters braced for what may be another brutal fire year for California.
Following the devastating firestorms that killed 44 people last fall and caused roughly $10 billion in damages, Cal Fire is warning that the number of fires and acreage burned so far this year is higher than the same six-month period last year, and far above the five-year average.
In the last week alone, Cal Fire has responded to 256 blazes, 90 of them just on Saturday and Sunday, Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said.
"You're looking at roughly 200 more responses year to date, and already 3,000 more acres than last year (through Sunday)," McLean said. "We're way ahead of last year."
The sudden uptick in blazes simply may be the result of a combination of factors: the first weekend of summer brought more people outside, which always adds to the chances of wildfires starting, and triple-digit temperatures and winds add to the peril.
The largest of the weekend blazes was the Pawnee Fire in Lake County that erupted Saturday afternoon and was expected to grow to at least 10,000 acres by late Monday.
The fire, which began northeast of Clearlake Oaks at Pawnee Road and New Long Valley Road, had destroyed 22 buildings by Monday, threatened 600 more and sent evacuees scrambling from their rural, hillside homes as the fire jumped from hilltop to hilltop.
Ron Prior, 54, said he fled his home on Doe Trail in Spring Valley Saturday afternoon after he saw the smoke. Prior grabbed an ice chest and packed his chickens - Dorothy, Blondie and Helens 1, 2 and 3 - into it, then strapped it to the back of his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and took off.
As he fled, Prior said he stopped every few minutes to lift the lid off the cooler to give his chickens some air, then ended up at the Moose Lodge in Clearlake Oaks where volunteers set up an evacuation shelter that welcomed people with their pets and livestock.
Prior was sitting in the shade Monday afternoon with about 150 other evacuees and said he tried to call 911 before fleeing but couldn't get a cell signal. Finally, he was able to get a signal long enough to call his father and ask him to call 911.
"My heart was pounding watching it get bigger," Prior said.
He raced away as other residents on all-terrain quads sped down the hills toward him as they shouted warnings.
"It's coming! It's coming!" one shouted, Prior said.
Authorities don't yet know how the fire began, but Prior said he had been hearing what sounded like rifle shots for two hours before he saw smoke, raising the possibility that someone was taking target practice in the area.
Another evacuee, Jayson Sentz, said he fled his Indian Hill Road home in Spring Valley Saturday night with six dogs, three cats and three horses. He couldn't find two other cats he owns, and he fled after hearing propane tanks exploding in the distance, then saw the flames on a hill above his house.
“We saw trees pop and fireballs fall on the hillside," Sentz said. "It was getting really hot.
"I was going to stay but my wife and kids were getting nervous. The danger was pretty imminent. It was time to go."
For some evacuees who have faced wildfire after wildfire during the recent drought and its aftermath, the situation is a familiar one.
Lola Claypool said she has evacuated her Spring Valley home five times in the last four years, and returned to the Moose Lodge because she knew pets would be welcomed by volunteers from the Animal Coalition of Lake County.
The volunteers are providing kennels, water, treats and food, with donations streaming in from as far away as Santa Rosa, the site of last year's Tubbs Fire, which killed 22 people, burned more than 5,600 structures and is considered the most destructive fire in state history.
"They've been a godsend," Claypool said of the coalition volunteers.
Other area residents simply chose to hunker down in their homes and keep watch on their property and their neighbors'.
John Mathies, 79, has lived in his Spring Valley home for 14 years and said he stayed despite the blaze coming within 200 yards of the house.
“This is home, it's everything you own right here," Mathies said. "At least we can stay and try to protect it.”
Mathies and his girlfriend, Nanette Nardinelli, stuck it out despite hearing 20 propane tanks exploding in the hillsides Saturday as the fire approached, and they held a barbecue with hamburgers and hot dogs Sunday for other residents who chose to stay.
Mathies said he has been under evacuation orders five times before and left three times. But during the Pawnee fire he chose to stay and watch over his neighbors' homes and water their flowers.
One neighbor's home about 300 yards away burned during the blaze, but others in the neighborhood were safe Monday afternoon.
Another large blaze, the Creek Fire west of Redding in Shasta County, also was forcing evacuations and had burned 1,300 acres as of Monday.
The Shasta County Sheriff's Office said several fires in the area that started Sunday were "considered suspicious in nature" and asked the public for information on an "older 1990s gold or tan minivan which may be involved."
Despite the uptick in blazes in the past week, McLean said there is no way to predict whether 2018 will be as bad as last year.
"I've seen years that start out like this and just plateau out," he said. "Last year, it just never ended, so it's really hard to say."