Fires

Couple’s dream life near Lakeport narrowly spared after wildfire came within feet of home

Firefighters try to stop resurgent River Fire by air on Tuesday evening

Firefighting aircraft try to stop the River Fire near Hendricks Road after afternoon winds on Tuesday, July 31, sparked a massive wall of flames – bringing fire teams racing back into the hills above Clear Lake.
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Firefighting aircraft try to stop the River Fire near Hendricks Road after afternoon winds on Tuesday, July 31, sparked a massive wall of flames – bringing fire teams racing back into the hills above Clear Lake.

Elizabeth and David Mills bought a home on Hendricks Road this year to fulfill a dream.

For years, they’d planned to move out to the country and open a farm. They’d have dairy goats, egg-laying hens, honey bees, rabbits, fruit trees and vegetables. They’d raise their two young children in this bucolic setting, two miles outside Lakeport in Scotts Valley. Last week, they adopted a rescue puppy.

On Tuesday, the dream nearly ended.

The Mills family watched in horror as a video on The Sacramento Bee’s Facebook page showed the raging River Fire race out of the hills behind their home and onto the property they bought in April. Pushed by fierce winds, the blaze cut a mile-long scar through the area in 20 minutes. Flames reaching 30 feet into the air surrounded many homes in one of the tensest moments of this five-day inferno.

Elizabeth Mills contacted The Bee after viewing the video. A reporter visited the home Wednesday and reported to Mills that it was untouched.

“I just hoped,” Mills said, who didn’t know until then of her home’s fate.

Cal Fire officials surveying the Scotts Valley region said most of the homes were untouched, but feared some houses in remote hillside areas had been destroyed by Tuesday’s fire.

For the first time, significant progress was being made on a blaze that has charred more than 33,000 acres, threatened thousands of homes and forced the mandatory evacuation of Lakeport, a city of 5,000 people on the west shore of Clear Lake.

“Things are improving,” said Cal Fire spokesman Derek Hawthorne, taking a break from checking for damaged homes along Hendricks Road.

Containment of the River Fire more than tripled Tuesday night, to 38 percent. The Ranch Fire, north of here, was at 15 percent containment. While separated by miles, the wildfires are part of what’s called the Mendocino Complex, an event that has consumed 94,912 acres and destroyed 14 homes in the parched hills of Lake and Mendocino counties. Roughly 12,000 structures are threatened between the two fires, but no one has been injured.

The weather seemed to finally be cooperating with the firefight.

Temperatures in Lakeport hovered in the low 60s in the morning and humidity was at 57 percent. Clear skies allowed helicopters to dump water on small flareups that emerged in the hills outside town. The temperature steadily rose through the day and the winds picked up, but the fire remained far from town.

More than 3,000 fire personnel were battling the Mendocino Complex – twice as many as on Monday. Cal Fire officials repeatedly said they were stretched thin as they combat fires throughout the state, including deadly blazes near Redding and Yosemite National Park.

Lakeport remained quiet, but law enforcement agencies were on high alert.

Lakeport Police Chief Brad Rasmussen said more than 20 suspected looters had been arrested inside the fire zone.

In one incident, an 84-year-old Korean War veteran was packing his pickup truck to flee when the truck was stolen in front of his home. Police found the vehicle 12 hours later, but the man’s belongings were gone, Rasmussen said.

Many of the suspected looters were arrested before they were able to commit crimes, Rasmussen said. Some had bolt cutters and empty backpacks as they prowled the empty streets of town, he said.

Every officer in Rasmussen’s department was evacuated from their own homes. Many were sleeping at Lakeport City Hall.

“We need to protect our town,” the chief said.

On Hendricks Road, the scene was vastly more calm than it had been the night before, when massive air tankers flying just a couple hundred feet above the ground dropped one load of pink retardant after another in front of the approaching fire, trying to stop its advance.

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A firefighter with Cal Fire assesses the property of Elizabeth and David Mills on Hendricks Road outside Lakeport. A fire that raged through the area Tuesday came within a few feet of the home, but the house was not damaged. Ryan Lillis

The fire came within 20 feet of the back of the Mills’ home. It scorched entire hillsides and fields, at one point jumping the road.

Elizabeth Mills was home with her 3-year-old son, Mason, and 4-month-old daughter, Melody Rose, when they were ordered to evacuate Sunday. Her husband was in the Bay Area on business, so the 32-year-old mother frantically grabbed wedding photos and the children’s belongings.

“I was just trying to remember what to pack,” she said.

At one point, she placed the kids in front of a television and retreated to a bedroom to cry.

The family sought refuge at a friend’s home in nearby Hopland, where they remained Wednesday. Eventually, they’ll return to their dream home in the country.

“That’s the plan,” she said. “Hopefully we find out soon when we can get back in there.”

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