Weary residents of fire-ravaged Lake County held out hope Tuesday that they might get a break from their fifth day of evacuations, power outages and smoky air, but late afternoon winds sparked a massive wall of flames, bringing fire teams racing back into the hills above Lakeport.
The huge plume of flames and smoke in the Scotts Valley area whipped up shortly before 5 p.m. after a calm afternoon during which it appeared fire crews might dodge a new flareup.
Instead, strong winds blew in from the west, common to the area, and the flames erupted anew about 2 miles northwest of downtown Lakeport, raising fears that it would begin advancing toward the town.
“We’ve been ahead of this all day, and then the winds came up,” Cal Fire firefighter Mark Beveridge said. “Now, we’re trying to get ahead of it again.”
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Lakeport, Finley, Nice and Kelseyville already had been evacuated in anticipation of the fire expanding, and Beveridge said firefighters hoped to use Highway 29 as a buffer to halt its advance toward Lakeport, a city of roughly 5,000 people.
“We concerned with everything until we get a handle on it,” he said.
Late Tuesday, authorities allowed residents to return to homes in some areas of Kelseyville, Finley and the Big Valley Rancheria, but the evacuation of Lakeport remained in place.
Authorities in both Lake and Mendocino counties were sent scrambling by flames from the Mendocino Complex fires, which consist of the River fire that has burned from Hopland into Lake County and the Ranch Fire near Ukiah.
By Tuesday, evening, Cal Fire said the River Fire had burned 28,869 acres and was at 12 percent containment. The Ranch Fire had burned 51,539 acres in Mendocino County, and was at 10 percent containment
Those fires had destroyed seven homes and were threatening 12,200 structures.
A third fire, the Eel Fire, erupted Tuesday afternoon and quickly burned 200 acres and forced the Mendocino County Sheriff to order evacuations around 5:30 p.m. for Mendocino Pass Road in Covelo from the Eel River Guard Station east to the county line.
Yet another fire erupted late Tuesday near the Sutter Buttes. The Butte Fire in Sutter County near Pass Road and West Butte Road blew up about nine miles northwest of Yuba City and burned 1,500 acres quickly in what Cal Fire Deputy Chief Scott McLean said was a “critical” rate of speed.
Cal Fire said aerial fire retardant drops had been made late Tuesday to protect communication towers atop the buttes and by late evening scanner traffic reported the fire at 40 percent containment.
Along the length of California, fire teams have been fighting huge blazes that typically are not seen until much later in the year, and firefighting lines have been stretched thin as teams have arrived from Western states to help.
The immediate threat Tuesday appeared to be near Lakeport, where DC-10s and other huge aircraft were bombarding the hillsides with fire retardant in repeated runs to save numerous homes, pear farms and cattle ranches in the area as propane tanks exploded below them. At one point the flames blasted through a mile of grass in about 15 minutes.
The drama played out after a day in which there appeared to be a lull in the fire and emergency responders had told an overflow crowd Tuesday morning on the other side of the lake at Clearlake City Hall that the battle against the River and Ranch fires was going well. They warned, however, that a lack of resources and unpredictable weather meant the fight would drag on.
“We continue to be confident, but we don’t have control of this, we don’t have control of Mother Nature,” said Ron Myers, a deputy incident commander with Cal Fire.
There are more than 2,000 firefighters battling the two wildfires in Mendocino and Lake counties. But with large fires still burning near Redding, Yosemite National Park and in Riverside County, John Messina, a Cal Fire battalion chief, said “we are facing limited resources.”
Messina said firefighters would typically be attacking the flames that were still raging through the parched hillsides Monday afternoon.
But with resources stretched thin, firefighters have instead focused on clearing brush around homes. Helicopters and airplanes were able to join the fight Monday, helping to douse flames that threatened hillside estates and farms.
“We have very minimal structures lost,” Messina said. “That even surprises us.”
Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said at least 10 structures in his county had been destroyed but that he expected that number to increase. He said more than 19,000 people were under mandatory evacuations or evacuation advisories.
Lakeport, a city of roughly 5,000 people, is evacuated. So are Kelseyville, Upper Lake and Nice.
Brenda Berdechowsky has been out of her home near Upper Lake since Friday. She and her four dogs are staying in a hotel in Clearlake — more than 30 miles away — but she has to be out of her room by noon Wednesday.
On Monday, she was sure her house had survived the Ranch Fire. But looking at a Cal Fire map on Tuesday, she said “it doesn’t appear it’s there.”
Like many residents in this region, she said she recognizes that living in a fire zone has become an unwelcome slice of life. The Valley Fire in 2015 destroyed nearly 2,000 homes and killed four people. The following year, the Clayton Fire destroyed 300 structures.
“You say to yourself every year, ‘It can’t be our turn again, we’ve already had so much,’” she said. “But here we are.”
After being out of their homes for so long, many residents just wanted answers.
Kathy Whited and her husband, Doug, evacuated their country home on Keck Road just outside Lakeport late Saturday. They pulled over on the highway on their way to their permanent home in Santa Rosa and saw the hills ablaze.
“I thought, ‘We won’t see (the home) again,’” she said.
Whited saw a Facebook video by a Sacramento Bee journalist on Monday that showed a vicious firefight in her neighborhood. Tanker planes and helicopters dropped load after load on the area as a wall of flames spread through the area.
“We thought, ‘oh my goodness,’ ” she said.
Whited contacted The Bee and a reporter checked on her house Tuesday. It was still standing – and so were all the other homes in the area.
Whited and her husband are retired school teachers. They’ve cleaned up the property on Keck Road since inheriting it from a family member in 2015. The same area was ravaged by a wildfire in the early 1980s.
“We’ve been preparing for the worst,” Whited said.
Some of her neighbors are also retirees. There’s a retired pharmacist who just poured $100,000 into her home on top of a steep hill nearby. The home was covered in pink fire retardant dropped from a plane Monday, but wasn’t damaged.
“It’s a nice place with solid people,” Whited said. “And we all try to help each other out.”