Wildfire forces thousands to evacuate in Lake County
Posted June 24, 2018 8:56 p.m. EDT
CLEARLAKE, Calif. -- Fire season blew in with a vengeance Sunday as flames scorched parts of Northern California, including a 3,000-acre inferno that raged through Lake County, destroying homes and wreaking havoc on communities still reeling from previous monster blazes.
The Pawnee Fire, fanned by dry, erratic winds, roared across the hilly eastern backbone of Lake County, destroying 12 structures and threatening some 600 others.
The fire surged from 450 acres after it started Saturday night to 3,000 acres by Sunday afternoon, forcing the evacuation of the Spring Valley area, a community of about 3,000 residents northeast of Clearlake near Highway 20, officials said.
``Given the weather and the changes in wind direction, the fire is moving in multiple directions,'' said Paul Lowenthal, assistant fire marshal for the Santa Rosa Fire Department.
These kinds of fires don't normally hit until late summer or fall, but Lowenthal said the area is drier than normal for this time of year.
``I don't think any of us thought we would be here this early in the season,'' Lowenthal said. ``This is the last thing anyone wants to go through. It has the potential to get a lot bigger given the wind and the directions it's being pushed.''
More than 235 firefighters battled the fire, which sent plumes of smoke thousands of feet into the air. It raged through oak-dotted hills that only a few years ago had been blackened by fire and crackled through grass so brittle that it crunched like glass underfoot. Firefighters used bulldozers to cut a fire break and dropped water and retardant from aircraft.
Residents and several fleeing deer evacuated on New Long Valley Road as flames licked atop the hillside. The American Red Cross set up an emergency shelter at Lower Lake High School.
``Oh, look at that hill. I bet those flames are 400 feet tall,'' said Leona Demits, who was pacing in front of the gate to her friend's Spring Valley home, warily watching the orange glow along the ridge behind the house.
Demits and her husband, Galen, were staying in the house temporarily during a move to Redding from Fort Bragg, where they were more used to rain and fog.
``Man, I didn't know you had to spend the summer half-packed up,'' she said, smoking a cigarette and sweating in the 100-degree heat.
Rural Lake County has had more than its share of devastation in recent years. It was spared by fires that ravaged neighboring Napa and Sonoma counties last year, but the 4,000-acre Clayton Fire burned much of the town of Lower Lake in August of 2016, destroying at least 300 homes and businesses and forcing thousands to evacuate.
A year earlier, the 76,000-acre Valley Fire killed five people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes and structures in and around Middletown, including Harbin Hot Springs and Hoberg's Resort. Fire officials said the most destructive fire in the history of Lake County was started by faulty wiring on a hot tub.
Large fires also raged through the county in 1996 and 2012.
``You don't think it will happen again, and then it just keeps happening,'' said Jim Bolander, 56, as he weed-whacked a perimeter around his home Sunday afternoon. ``Glad I got this damn thing.''
He and his wife, Cindy, were preparing to load their French bulldogs and parrot, Scooby, into their trailer, which was already packed with their stuff, but many other residents were reluctant to leave.
``We've been watching backyards turn into bonfires,'' said Santos Modesto, 49, who sat in a lawn chair at the end of the driveway with an energy drink, contemplating the situation.
Modesto evacuated his five children and removed precious belongings after fire officials knocked on his door at 4 a.m., but he decided to stay and fight to save the house he has lived in for eight years.
``We said we would leave when the fire hit that ridge. Then it did. So we said we would when it hit this closer ridge. And then it did. Now we're saying we will go when it hits the house,'' he said. ``It's getting routine. That's the sad part. This is too traumatic to be routine.''
The Pawnee Fire was one of four large blazes burning in Northern California.
Farther north in Tehama County, both the 500-acre Stoll Fire and the 3,000-acre Lane Fire prompted evacuations. The Stoll Fire was 40 percent contained after multiple homes and buildings were destroyed Sunday. The Lane Fire was 5 percent contained and no structures were destroyed. There were no injuries reported in either incident.
In eastern Contra Costa County, a fire ignited Saturday near Antioch, burning six structures and 10 acres and sending two residents to the hospital, fire officials said. The blaze, which broke out around 5:15 p.m. Saturday, burned property at Deer Hill Lane and Deer Valley Road, about a mile south of the Antioch Kaiser medical building. It was contained by early Sunday.
The blazes ignited as forecasters were warning of dangerous fire conditions because of high heat, strong winds and low humidity. Red-flag warnings were issued all weekend for the East Bay hills and higher elevations in Sonoma and Napa counties, among many other places in Northern California.
The causes of all the fires are under investigation.