Mendocino Complex Fires: Residents pack public meeting, look for answers

- Update as of Thursday at 12:45 p.m. - The evacuation order is now reduced to a warning. People living near the River and Ranch fires should still use caution. Better to be safe.

Update as of Thursday at 9:18 a.m. - The Lake County Sheriff’s Office has upgraded a current Advisory issued to a Mandatory Evacuation in Western Lake County. The Mandatory Evacuation area is west of Lucerne at Bartlett Springs Road and Highway CA-20, south of the fire, east of the fire, north of Clear Lake including the communities of Blue Lakes, Upper Lake, Nice, Lakeport, Witter Springs, Bachelor Valley, Scotts Valley, Saratoga Springs.

Lake County residents packed a public meeting Wednesday night, seeking answers about wildfires and evacuations. 

About 300 people came to the Kelseyville High School gymnasium to hear presentations from CalFire and public officials. 

"The federal government is doing everything that it can, " assured Rep. Mike Thompson, whose Congressional district includes much of Lake County. 

Two fires, the River and Ranch fires, have been burning for six day, and consumed almost 100,000 acres, with combined containment at just 24 percent. 

"We're not out of the woods with either of these fires," CalFire Assistant Chief Sean Kavanaugh cautioned, "but we are doing our best folks, we really are, we want to get you back in your homes." 
Kelseyville was coming back to life Wednesday. 

Its 3,500 residents were given the all-clear Tuesday night, as the River fire was the southern spread of the River Fire was halted. 

"We were back in our home in under thirty hours," said Karen Sullivan of Kelseyville, attending the meeting. "That's six horses, two dogs, we got everything off the property and now we're happy to get home."  

But on the outskirts of Lakeport and Upper Lake, fire is still making runs from the hills into rural properties. 

"Several home and ranches up in there, it's a pretty difficult firefight," explained CalFire Operations Chief Charlie Blankenheim, showing the crowd continuing trouble spots on a map. 

Scattered homes were lost as recently as Tuesday night, putting the total homes destroyed at 14, with an additional 24 outbuildings and barns also in ruins.

Does Blankenheim think the loss of homes is over ?

"I cannot  say that, no," he responded, "because we still have a lot of ground left to fight fire, I would not say that at all." 

With homes still in jeopardy, CalFire says it's premature to ease evacuations in Lakeport, Scotts Valley, Blue Lakes, Upper Lake, Bachelor Valley, and Nice.

In Lakeport, the county seat, local merchants are closed, and there are no pedestrians or motorists on the downtown streets.

Signs on the doors of the county courthouse, and other businesses proclaim "Closed due to wildfire."
Lakeport has a population exceeding 5,000 and the growing financial toll is alarming to Rep. Thompson.

"You don't sell a gallon of gas, you don't bag groceries, it affects everybody at every level," said Thompson. 

He notes, the threshold to qualify for "individual assistance" requires a significant loss of property, which the Mendocino Complex Fires don't have. 

But they may be able to piggyback on Redding's disaster, where almost 1,000 homes were leveled.   
"We're working with FEMA to see if there's a way we can associate Lake County with Shasta County because there are some similarities," said Thompson. 

A Kelseyville attorney whose law practice is in Lakeport, agreed the shutdown was becoming costly for all. 

"I practice in Lakeport, my office is in Lakeport and this is my first vacation in a year, undesired," said Andre Ross, " so I want to see things get back to business and safely occupied." 

For increased safety going forward, the county's other Congressman wants big changes in forest management.  
"A lot of people blame it on Smokey the Bear," said Rep. John Garamendi, "because we became so good at fire prevention and suppression." 
 

Garamendi says years of leaving forests alone have turned them into firestorms waiting to happen. 
He'd like a combination of burning, pruning and logging to reduce the danger.    

"We have to thin these forests," declared Garamendi, "because over the years, the forest management money has all been robbed to fight fires, and there's nothing left to manage the forests."
After the meeting, residents approached to study maps and ask questions of officials one on one. 
 

CalFire promised there will be more public briefings to keep everyone apprised, but did not give a target date for re-population.

"The last thing we want to do is let you all go home, and then have to evacuate you all over again, said CalFire's Sean Kavanaugh. 

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