A stubborn wildfire exploded in the hills west of the quiet resort town of Lakeport Monday afternoon, sending flames surging 20 feet into the sky as they roared through dry brush and pine trees and forced a new round of evacuations that were directed at residents of Kelseyville and Finley.
Residents of the area were told to immediately evacuate east on Highway 29 toward Lower Lake as winds began kicking up flames in the region. Helicopters made repeated flying runs dumping water on the flames and huge aircraft lumbered overhead dumping tons of orange retardant on hillsides in an effort to halt the flames from advancing on communities.
The River Fire – one of two fires that make up what is being called the Mendocino Complex – crept to within one mile of the Lakeport city limits Sunday night, and by early afternoon Monday huge plumes of smoke began rising about two miles west of the town as winds began picking up.
Three helicopters made repeated attacks against the fire on one hillside, siphoning water from ponds in the area as they fought to keep the fire from reaching Lakeport on the shores of Clear Lake and to protect homes on the hillsides.
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At least one large home was fully engulfed on a hilltop west of Lakeport in the afternoon, and firefighters were struggling to protect about a dozen others by digging hand lines and cutting tree branches.
One squad was forced to retreat temporarily into a dry creek bed as the fire surged.
“The fire spotted across our line, so we had to retreat to our safety zone,” said Cal Fire Capt. Randy Northup, who said a spot fire burned 200 acres in the area in five minutes.
“We’re seeing the fire behave in late July like we’re used to seeing in late October,” Northup said. “We’re eight weeks ahead of schedule.”
Some firefighters said they simply did not have enough resources to fight the flames, with thousands of other firefighting teams spread along the length of the state battling 17 major fires.
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman posted a Facebook video as he stood on his county’s line with Lake County about 500 yards from a blaze tearing through brush and hillsides.
The fire is “continuing to move east in a devastating fashion,” Allman said.
“There have been some structures lost at the county line along Old Highway 20 and the underbrush is burning right now and has gone into the top of the trees, and so we have the crowning,” Allman said. “I’m probably 500 yards from where that fire is right now, and I can certainly feel it... There’s not a lot of things I can say, other than we’re sorry for our friends in Lake County.”
Doug Hutchison, chief of the Lakeport Fire District, said he expected the fire to continue growing as it threatens Lakeport, a city of nearly 5,000 residents that was evacuated Sunday. He predicted that when the winds grew it would be like “taking the lid off a boiling pot of water.”
“It’s going to run with the wind,” he said. “Frankly, I’m concerned.”
The evacuations included emptying out Sutter Lakeside Hospital twice, once Saturday and again on Sunday, as well as transferring 285 inmates on Sunday from the Lake County jail to Alameda County facilities, the sheriff’s office said.
Despite the fears for Lakeport, conditions were improving to the west, where authorities lifted evacuation orders Monday morning for Hopland and the Hopland Rancheria.
Mendocino County Undersheriff Matt Kendall said Monday that officials are still bracing for winds that could pick up in the afternoon and complicate matters, but he said fire conditions are improving, particularly in the area of the Ranch Fire, which has burned more than 45,000 acres northeast of Ukiah.
“We’re doing pretty good around Ukiah,” Kendall said. “The fire jumped Highway 20 a couple of times Sunday and they beat it back with a broom.
“They did a really good job.”
The undersheriff said authorities had ordered 900 to 1,000 people countywide to evacuate at one point, but he acknowledged that many residents refused to leave. The fires in Mendocino County are mostly burning into rural areas and National Forest lands, he said, while Lake County is facing more of a threat as the fire burns into that area.
“Even though the fire’s moving into Lake County, it’s still taxing our resources,” Kendall said, adding that authorities from both counties are accustomed to helping each other without regard to county lines.
“When we have an emergency we just deal with it,” Kendall said.
The two fires in this region have already consumed more than 68,000 acres in the parched grassland west of Clear Lake and in Mendocino County – nearly doubling in size in a 12-hour span Sunday night. Seven homes and three outbuildings have been destroyed, and more than 10,000 are threatened by the fires, which were at 5 percent containment.
Cal Fire said 1,999 fire personnel are battling the blaze. That’s not enough, Hutchison said, but it’s the reality facing his small city as firefighters continue to combat the Carr Fire in Redding.
“I get it – a fire is hitting a city of 92,000 people and they were first in line,” he said. “We deal with what we have to deal with.”
Outside Lakeport, west of Highway 29, Hutchison said the fire was bearing down on “dozens and dozens” of homes, from pear farms to multimillion-dollar estates. He didn’t expect the evacuation orders would be lifted for days.
Several communities near Clear Lake were under mandatory evacuation orders, including Nice, Upper Lake and Potter Valley. A thick blanket of smoke covered the region Monday morning.