A rapidly expanding wildfire that originated in Mendocino County pushed its way deep into neighboring Lake County on Sunday, forcing evacuations from the small resort communities along Clear Lake and multiple areas in the western part of the county.
The Mendocino Complex Fire, consisting of the Ranch and River fires, grew five-fold in barely a day and had consumed a total of 30,500 acres by Sunday night. Surging eastward, it got close enough to Clear Lake to prompt a round of new evacuation orders Sunday afternoon.
The Sheriff’s Department issued the orders as the fire danger worsened. First came Lakeport, on the southwest edge of Clear Lake, followed by the smaller resort town of Upper Lake and then Nice, flanking the eastern edge of the lake. By early evening the department was telling people to leave much of western Lake County and head for shelter.
“Evacuate Immediately!” the Sheriff’s Department advised Upper Lake residents on social media. “Upper Lake is under imminent threat from the Ranch Fire. Leave immediately via Hwy 20 southbound.”
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For much of Sunday, winds had remained relatively calm and evacuations were limited to mostly rural areas of Mendocino and Lake counties. Officials had evacuated the unincorporated western outskirts of Lakeport and were hoping to contain the River Fire before it reached the city. Lakeport is the county seat and home to many of its hotels and motels.
Late in the afternoon, however, the danger escalated. The Lake County Sheriff’s Department said the fire posed “an imminent threat” to the city and told its 4,000 or so residents to seek shelter at the Twin Pines Casino in Middletown, about 30 miles south.
Flames hadn’t reached the city by early evening but sheriff’s Lt. Corey Paulich said public safety officials were taking every precaution.
“We’re just trying to stay ahead of everything,” he said. “We’re just monitoring the fire activity; as it increases, we’re just increasing the evacuation area.”
Sutter Lakeside Hospital in Lakeport was evacuated Saturday night, reopened for emergency and obstetrics Sunday morning, and then evacuated again Sunday evening. A total of eight patients were evacuated Sunday.
The evacuations made for an all-too familiar scene in the impoverished county, which has experienced multiple major wildfires in the past three years.
Sunday’s evacuation order emptied out hotels and motels at various spots around Clear Lake at the height of tourist season. In Lakeport, a woman answering the phone at Konocti Vista Casino said guests had cleared out but a handful of employees were still securing the property.
Sheriff’s deputies also announced an advisory evacuation notice for two areas just east of Clear Lake: the tiny unincorporated community of Finley and the Big Valley Rancheria. The rancheria is the home of the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians, owner of the Konocti casino.
Meanwhile, the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department expanded its evacuation notices, issuing an order for much of the area around Potter Valley, in the southeast region of the county near the Lake County line.
The escalating evacuation orders were testament to the ferocity of the fires, which began Friday afternoon. They were 5 percent contained Sunday, but officials warned throughout the day that winds would pick up and containment lines might falter.
The two fires had burned just four homes, but another 4,600 homes were threatened as the flames moved south and east into Lake County. A total of 530 homes had been evacuated in Mendocino County alone.
With so many fires burning, including the massive Carr Fire in Redding, Cal Fire said it was having trouble getting enough fire engines, bulldozers and personnel to the area.
“Resources throughout the state are stretched so thin,” said Cal Fire spokesman Brandon Vaccaro. A total of 820 people were working on the Mendocino Complex Fire, according to Cal Fire.
He added that a previous report, that seven firefighters had been injured, was incorrect.
The River Fire, which originated 6 miles north of Hopland in southeast Mendocino County, was considered the most problematic as it burned through an area rich with vegetation.
“That area hasn’t burned since the early 1980s,” Mendocino County Undersheriff Matt Kendall said. He said Cal Fire was establishing fire lines well east of the blaze “because they’re afraid of the speed” at which it’s moving.
“The good news is that those areas aren’t very heavily populated,” he added.
Earlier Sunday, Charlie Blankenheim, a Cal Fire operations chief, said in a video update on Twitter that bulldozers were lined up along the outskirts of Lakeport to keep the city safe. “We’ll be trying to hold that dozer line to keep the fire out of Lakeport,” he said.
The evacuation area in Mendocino county includes River Road south to the intersection of Highway 175 from the Russian River to the Lake County line. The Potter Valley community also has been evacuated, and all areas north of Highway 20 east of the fire’s edge. An evacuation center was open at Mendocino College in Ukiah.
Meanwhile, the Steele Fire in Napa County destroyed eight buildings as of Sunday afternoon. The fire consumed 150 acres and was 50 percent contained.
Lake County already has seen two other wildfires this season, including the 15,000-acre Pawnee fire. The county lost 300 homes and other buildings in the 2016 Clayton Fire, and four people were killed when the Valley Fire tore through 76,000 acres in 2015. Meanwhile, the wine country fires last October killed eight people in Mendocino County.
Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in Lake, Mendocino and Napa counties.