Update: Planes retake skies in Valley, Butte fires

A firefighter lights a back burn along Highway 29 north of Middletown on Sunday, September13, 2015, in Lake County.
A firefighter lights a back burn along Highway 29 north of Middletown on Sunday, September13, 2015, in Lake County.

UPDATE 1:50 p.m.

Air tankers and helicopters are flying again at both the Butte and Valley fires, helping to staunch the fierce blazes after being grounded by heavy layers of smoke over the weekend.

But frustrations are growing among residents at both fire zones because many are still not being allowed back into their neighborhoods to see if their homes are standing.

Officials have reopened some neighborhoods, but many remain closed because the fire danger is too great, and tempers are beginning to boil over for some.

In Lake County, scene of the monster Valley fire that killed at least one woman and destroyed hundreds of homes, dozens of people gathered in a dirt parking lot Monday afternoon outside a CHP roadblock in Lower Lake along Highway 29.

Betty Kuckowicz, a Twin Lakes resident for 22 years, was among those chafing at their inability to get back to their homes.

“I have a car, I can leave again if I need to,” she said.

Kuckowicz said she fled her home Sunday and knows it survived because her husband later sneaked behind the fire lines to check.

Jessica Armstrong, who lived on a ranch in Hidden Valley for 15 years, said her home was destroyed.

“It’s really frustrating, but I guess they’re doing the best they can,” she said at the roadblock.

Along her neighborhood, many homes were spared while others burned.

“That’s how fire happen,” she said.

UPDATE 1:35 p.m.

Flames from the Butte fire closed to within a couple of miles of the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary near San Andreas, but the eight elephants and other exotic animals living there are all safe, PAWS co-founded and director Ed Stewart said Monday.

“It’s something that we plan on every year,” Stewart said of PAWS’ fire protection efforts. “We have goats that come in. We hire goats that come in and eat down fire hazards.

“We have fire breaks that we cut every year all along the animal enclosures, and we mow early in the year before it’s too dry. We have 60,000 gallons of water stored here, plus a lake that we can draw from. We have our own fire truck that I bought from the local fire department that holds 3,000 gallons (of water).”

Stewart said workers who have been evacuated continue to care for the animals at the 2,300-acre sanctuary west of San Andreas.

“One of our workers, he lives right up in Mountain Ranch and he still doesn’t know if his house is there or not,” Stewart said. “He thinks probably not.

“I talked to him this morning and said, ‘You know, you really don’t have to be at work.’ But he was more worried about taking care of our animals than his own situation. You get almost that 9/11 feeling where everybody all of a sudden was pulling for each other.”

Stewart said he stopped by a local post office and saw a woman laughing as she walked out with a package that had come for her. “This is my only possession,” she told him. “Everything else is lost.”

UPDATE: 1:25 p.m.

An Oakland man is suspected of trying to loot a home in the partially evacuated town of San Andreas.

Yolo and Tuolumne County sheriff’s deputies patrolling the fire-threatened town as a favor to Calaveras County authorities on Saturday morning were flagged down by a San Andreas resident.

The resident had noticed a vehicle in a driveway that should not have been there. Deputies surrounded the home and saw a man exit through a broken window.

He was apprehended and then turned over to Calaveras County deputies. Inside the home, deputies found evidence that he was in the process of looting.

The vehicle in the driveway was reported stolen.

UPDATE 1:15 p.m.

Jackson Rancheria Casino and Resort has canceled a Thursday night Lynyrd Skynyrd concert because of the Butte fire. The casino has been serving as an evacuation center for residents displaced by the fire.

UPDATE 12:35 p.m.

The Valley fire has damaged five of the 14 geothermal electricity producing plants at The Geysers, the largest geothermal plant in the world, but the immediate impact on power generation is not yet known.

Brett Kerr, a spokesman for Calpine, which owns the 45-square mile plant situated along the Lake and Sonoma county lines, said damage to wooden cooling towers had been caused by the fire at the plants, but that the power-generating plants themselves are not damaged.

“The powerhouses themselves – the buildings that house the steam turbines that generate the electricity – are undamaged as far as we know at this time,” he said.

The entire plant generates about 60 percent of the electricity needs for the North Coast from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon line. The plant can generate 725 megawatts of power, enough to provide for a city the size of San Francisco, Kerr said. The five plants that have been affected generate 207 megawatts.

Kerr said some plants are not operational and that others are running at reduced capacity, but said he did not yet know how the damage has affected overall electrical generation.

The Geysers generates about 10 percent of the entire capacity Calpine plants produce in California, Kerr said, and employ about 300 workers and 150 contractors. None of them was injured when the fire hit the plant.

UPDATE 12:01 p.m.

VCA Animal Hospitals in the Sacramento area are offering free boarding for small animals belonging to families displaced due to the wildfires burning in the north state, including the Butte fire. Dogs, cats and birds are welcome on a space available basis at VCA veterinary hospitals in various communities, including Elk Grove, Carmichael, Orangevale, North Highlands and Sacramento.

Pets should be current on shots. If they are not, VCA will update vaccinations for free.

UPDATE 11:45 a.m.

State Farm Insurance has tips for people threatened by fire and not yet evacuated:

Take time to prepare an evacuation kit of clothes, food and water, personal documents, medications and irreplaceable items. Keep them near the door in case authorities give the order to evacuate.

Make an inventory of possessions by photographing each room with a digital camera of cell phone. Pay close attention to possessions on walls, in drawers and in closets.

UPDATE 11:25 a.m.

While 1,255 firefighters are focusing much of their attention on the Valley fire in Lake and Sonoma counties, there is a massive presence statewide of more than 11,000 firefighters battling a dozen large blazes, Cal Fire says.

The three major fires are the Valley fire, at 61,000 acres and 5 percent containment; the Butte fire in Amador and Calaveras counties, at 71,063 acres and 30 percent containment; and the Rough fire east of Fresno, at 138,053 acres and 40 percent containment. That fire is the largest in the state.

Firefighters from across California and the West are being brought in to help, with teams from Nevada state fire units coming in and federal firefighters from the Pacific Northwest.

“We’ve gone outside of California to get an additional 50 fire engines from other states,” Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said. “We don’t see an end to fire season for months to come.”

UPDATE 10:55 a.m.

Authorities say there has been damage at a massive geothermal plant from the Valley fire, but that the full extent is not yet certain.

“It looks like there was damage to the cooling towers, and those are wooden,” said Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott.

The Geysers plant, which is owned by Calpine and provides 60 percent of the electricity from north of San Francisco to the Oregon state line, is the largest geothermal plant in the world, according to the Calpine website.

It operates 14 power plants spread over 45 square miles along the Sonoma and Lake county lines.

A Calpine spokesman said the company was working Monday to determine the extent of the damage.

UPDATE 10:40 a.m.

California fire officials say they have confirmed one fatality in the massive Valley fire and still are investigating whether other deaths have occurred in that blaze and the Butte fire burning to the east in Calaveras and Amador counties.

At a press briefing this morning at the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, Gov. Jerry Brown and other officials described the efforts being made against those blazes and the Rough fire burning east of Fresno.

One woman died in the Valley fire, officials confirmed, but her identity and the circumstances of her death have not yet been released.

“We only have one confirmation,” OES Director Mark Ghilarducci said, “but we do have people who are unaccounted for.”

Four firefighters suffered burns in the first few minutes of the Valley fire, which began Saturday afternoon in Lake County, and officials stressed that firefighters have been hampered by residents who have refused to obey evacuation orders.

“Quite simply and directly, they’re not (cooperating) and these fires are extremely fast-moving...,” Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said. “We know folks were not heeding evacuation orders to leave, and the challenge to that (is) firefighters are always going to protect lives and property first.

“We had individuals walking down street after their homes had burned and their cars had burned and had no place to go and we pulled them out.”

The governor said he had spoken to veteran firefighters who expressed surprise at the speed with which fires have been expanding in drought-stricken areas, and that residents need to follow orders when told to flee.

“This is damn serous stuff,” Brown said. “People have to leave when they get word.”

Pimlott said the state currently has experienced 1,500 more fires this year than last at the same time and the fire behavior is extreme because of the drought.

“I can tell you whether you’re a rookie firefighter with your first year or you’re a seasoned veteran, everyone is saying the same thing: (they) have not seen fires move and spread at this pace,” Pimlott said.

Smoldering remains of homes, vehicles and possessions help tell the story of the Valley fire's pitiless assault on Lake County, where is exploded early Sunday.

The Butte fire burning in Calaveras and Amador counties continued to advance on Sunday, sweeping through grass, brush and trees as firefighters struggled to established containment. Homes and other structures have been destroyed, displacing increa

Scenes of Valley Fire destruction in Middletown, Calif. on Sept. 13, 2015.

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