Fire fight continues in Lake and Mendocino counties

- Update 12:20 p.m. Saturday -- The Ranch Fire grew overnight to 156,678 acres and is 27 percent contained. The River Fire jumped to 44,793 acres and is 50 percent containment, bringing the total acreage of the Mendocino Complex Fire to 201,471.

After a week of wildfire, Lake County is still under siege, especially on Clear Lake's north shore where the Ranch Fire is just a few miles away from several communities.

The Ranch Fire jumped from 84,000 acres Thursday night to 115,000 acres Friday night, and containment slipped. 

Combined with the 42,000 acre River fire, the two, dubbed the Mendocino Complex Fire, are five times the size of San Francisco.

More than a half dozen communities including Blue Lakes, Upper Lake, Nice, Lucerne, Glenhaven and Clearlake Oaks, remain under mandatory evacuation, with more than 9,000 structures threatened. 

"This is the ash fall, what's falling out of the sky right now," said Spring Valley resident Ben Hollin, holding blackened oak leaves in his hand. 

Friday evening, Hollin was finding charred leaves and bark drifting over nearby ridges and landing in his yard.

He worries they might arrive still burning.  

"If they had landed with embers in them, we'd be in the middle of fire," said Hollin, "because this is what would bring the fire here. If it lands in dry grass then we're done." 

Hollin's neighborhood of about 700 homes was evacuated Thursday evening, but he stayed behind.
He figures he dodged disaster a month ago when the Pawnee fire came through and destroyed a dozen homes.  

"Oh yeah, I'm not going anywhere unless the yard is on fire," said Hollin, "because I've got too many animals."  

At an evening briefing in Clearlake, Cal-Fire told the crowd they appreciate their patience, as the firefight goes into its second week. 

"We're experiencing a very large and destructive fire in your county and your community, " said Cal Fire Incident Commander Sean Kavanaugh. 

Pointing to a huge map of the fires, officials explained that the Ranch Fire has made a nine-mile southeast push along the ridges above the Northshore communities, and the plan is to corral it there, bumped against the Pawnee Fire scar.  

"Hopefully, we can hold the corner, and get the southern end tied in, and start getting folks back home in a day or so," said Charlie Blankenheim, Section Chief for Cal-Fire.  

The audience was also assured that some of the smoke they see is from backfiring operations to reduce fuels above the towns.

But there is still a lot of fire on the move.  

"If the fire crosses the ridge and gets into the communities we have contingency plans," said Blankenheim, detailing how crews are ready, multiple lines have been laid, and retardant dropped on the ridge tops as well.    

"The fire is close, two miles, maybe 2.5 miles away in some places," admitted Blankenheim, "and it's progressing, it's going to get right to the top of town." 

Cal Fire says the number of homes lost - at 41- will go higher once final counts are made, but the loss of property is always preferable to loss of life, civilian or firefighter. 

"The worst thing for us as incident commanders is to see a home burn, and a family displaced and lose everything they have, that pulls on me and that pulls on every firefighter," Kavanaugh told KTVU.  

He says fire-fighting strategy is continuously being re-evaluated.

"We are aggressive. There are times when it wins, and there times when we win. We will get this absolutely. It will go out."  

Ben Hollin didn't attend the public briefing, knowing if he leaves Spring Valley, he won't be allowed back in.

His bags are packed, and he is not expecting much sleep, but he is reassured that a multi-engine strike team from the Seattle area is stationed on his road for structure protection should fire blow over the ridge. 

How worried is he?

"I'm here. I'll be here until there's fire is right there, and then I'll be in the truck and leaving." 

Other engines are scattered throughout the Spring Valley neighborhood overnight.

There are 3500 personnel and more than 400 engines assigned to the Ranch and River fires as the Complex enters week two. 

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