A wildfire in Lake County was threatening the towns of Lower Lake and Clearlake on Sunday evening, leading to the evacuations of hundreds of people.
The fire started in a mostly rural area and destroyed four homes late Saturday, but shifted dramatically Sunday afternoon, crossing Morgan Valley Road and causing car and building fires along Main Street in Lower Lake, a town of about 1,200 people.
“This evening, it’s a full firefight at this point,” said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant. “People are being evacuated, and we’re trying to save buildings despite the ferocity of the fire.”
People in Lower Lake reported at least five commercial structures, including the post office, were on fire with multiple explosions from propane tanks. Video from the fire showed black smoke looming over the town, a popular destination for fishing, camping, hiking and horseback riding.
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Firefighters were hoping to contain the fire before it reached Clearlake, a neighboring community of about 15,000. As of early evening, the southern edge of Clearlake was being evacuated and patients at a hospital there were being transferred to another hospital 25 miles away, according to The Associated Press.
One evacuee from Clearlake, Lynn Elliott, left her home Sunday afternoon with her three dogs and was watching the fire from a Shell gas station just outside the town of Williams.
“It’s eating the edges of the town away,” Elliott said, a giant plume of ominous smoke visible in the distance.
Wendy Martin, a Lower Lake resident, said she evacuated her home Sunday morning after she saw flames on a ridge near her front yard.
“I grabbed a few possessions. I don’t know if my house is still standing or what the case is. I just hope I still have a home,” she said.
Martin fought back tears as she described why the uncertainty of losing her house was made all the more tragic. On Friday, she said, just before the fire started, her husband, Deodato Alves, died at home from liver cancer.
“He’s supposed to be at the funeral home in Lower Lake here,”she said. “But the downtown is on fire now, so I don’t have any idea what’s going on.”
Area residents said the fire was especially traumatic because it follows so soon after a spate of fires that blackened the area last year.
The Valley Fire tore through 76,067 acres in Lake, Sonoma and Napa counties in September, killing four people and leveling 1,280 homes. Last August, the Jerusalem Fire scorched 25,118 acres and destroyed six homes before it was contained. That overlapped with the Rocky Fire, which burned 69,439 acres, including 43 homes, from July 29 to Aug. 13 last year.
“People are feeling the devastation of this happening again,” said Joyce Overton, director of the Highlands Senior Center in Clearlake, which served as an evacuation center for this fire and those that hit the area last year. “They are wondering if someone started the fires (and) how long it’s going to go on this time. It’s that feeling of you can’t do anything about it, but here we are again.”
Aside from the evacuations, officials were ordering road closures for a broad area.
“We are asking the public to stay out of the Lower Lake area of Lake County,” said Lt. Hector Paredes, CHP commander for the area. “We don’t know the direction of the fire in terms of how it can change.”
Among the roads being closed is U.S. Highway 20, between the points where it intersects with Highway 53 and Highway 29. Also closed is Highway 29 between Highway 53 and the Kitts Corner convenience store in Kelseyville.
Berlant, the Cal Fire spokesman, said “well over 1,000” structures were being threatened by what is being called the Clayton Fire. The fire started about 5 p.m. Saturday in a rural area. Overnight, it ballooned from 400 acres to about 1,400 acres.
By late Sunday evening, the fire had burned about 3,000 acres, Cal Fire reported.
“Yesterday, we had high temperatures, low humidity and gusty wind,” Berlant said. Add drought-stricken vegetation, and it’s the perfect combination for a fast-moving wildfire, he said.
As the fire spread Sunday, at least 800 firefighters were brought in to battle the blaze, aided by four helicopters, three air tankers and 66 fire engines.
Kathy Jefferson, who owns a ranch about half a mile from the fire, said her property was not in immediate danger, though the area was smoky and ash was falling.
Jefferson lives on the ranch with her husband and son. The family has 50 North American sportponies, which she uses to teach riding. Jefferson said her family has trailers prepared for the horses if they need to evacuate. Her family and horses were evacuated a couple of times last year during the Rocky and Valley fires, she said.
The ranch has been without power since 7 p.m. Saturday.
“We don’t know a whole lot,” she said. “We have no power so we have no idea of the news, but the neighbors are checking on each other.”
Ryan Sabalow, Hector Amezcua and Alejandra Reyes-Velarde contributed to this report.