Northern California blazes now largest in state history

-  Twin Northern California blazes fueled by dry vegetation and hot, windy weather grew Monday to become the largest wildfire in state history, becoming the norm as climate change makes the fire season longer and more severe.

The two fires, the River and Ranch fires, burning a few miles apart and known as the Mendocino Complex are being treated as one incident. It has scorched more than 290,000 acres, fire officials said Tuesday. One firefighter was injured, though the nature and extent were not specified.

The fires, north of San Francisco, have burned 75 homes and is only 30 percent contained. On Tuesday, CalFire estimated full containment wouldn't come until Sept. 1.

"It was scary, I've been waiting for four days for this to happen, I knew it was coming," said Crystal Easter, still shaking from a close call Monday evening. Easter lives in the Spring Valley community of Clearlake Oaks, which evacuated last Friday as the Ranch Fire pushed to the south and east. 

With a dozen dogs on her large parcel, Easter didn't leave. 

Monday, she was glad she didn't, because she was able to call for help, when flying embers caught the house across from her on fire, then the hill behind her house. 

"When it was coming from both sides, I started crying, but I was still doing my best, as I was cried, saying oh God, please no." 

Two helicopters began dumping water, and several engines raced from the next valley, where the fire had jumped the line. Easter's neighbor's house burned to the ground, but her property was spared.   

"There were no firefighters here whatsoever until I called 911 and they sent some firefighters because they were all back in the valley paying attention to other fires," said Easter. 

The size of the fires surpasses a blaze last December in Southern California that burned 281,893 acres.It killed two people, including a firefighter, and destroyed more than 1,000 buildings before being fully contained on Jan. 12.
 
Hotter weather attributed to climate change is drying out vegetation, creating more intense fires that spread quickly from rural areas to city subdivisions, climate and fire experts say. But they also blame cities and towns that are expanding housing into previously undeveloped areas.
 
More than 14,000 firefighters are battling over a dozen major blazes throughout California, state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Scott McLean said.
 
"I can remember a couple of years ago when we saw 10 to 12,000 firefighters in the states of California, Oregon and Washington and never the 14,000 we see now," he said.
 
Crews did make progress over the weekend against one of the two blazes in the Mendocino Complex with help from water-dropping aircraft, Cal Fire operations chief Charlie Blankenheim said in a video on Facebook.

But the other one is growing after spreading into the Mendocino National Forest.
 
The complex of fire has been less destructive to property than some of the other wildfires in the state because it is mostly raging in remote areas. But officials say the twin fires threaten 11,300 buildings and some new evacuations were ordered over the weekend as the flames spread.

"It's unprecedented in these seven communities," Lake County Supervisors Chairman Jim Steele told KTVU, "having all of these shoreline communities evacuated, everyone is nervous about getting back in." Steele's district includes the towns that still have fire above them, and in some places, creeping down the ridge. He knows people are anxious, not just about their homes, but continued disruption for children, jobs, school, and animals.    

"There are 600 people who are in the emergency shelters, but there are 10,000 people evacuated, so we don't know where they all are," said Steele.

Farther north, crews gained ground against a deadly blaze that has destroyed more than 1,000 homes in and around Redding. It was nearly halfway contained, Cal Fire said.
 
The wildfire about 225 miles (360 kilometers) north of San Francisco started more than two weeks ago by sparks from the steel wheel of a towed-trailer's flat tire. It killed two firefighters and four residents and displaced more than 38,000 people.
 
Officials began allowing some residents to return to their neighborhoods. But tens of thousands of others were still evacuated.
 
The fires in Northern California have created such a haze of smoke in the Central Valley that Sacramento County health officials advised residents to avoid outdoor activities for the entire week. 
 
Another blaze that ignited last week has damaged a historic Northern California resort in the Stanislaus National Forest. The nearly century-old Dardanelle Resort has sustained massive structural damage, though the details were unclear, the Sacramento Bee newspaper reported.
 
The rustic lodge 180 miles  east of San Francisco is nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains and offers cabin and motel rentals along with RV sites, a store and restaurant. 
 
The U.S. Forest Service reported that the fire crossed a highway Sunday evening, forcing crews to retreat from the fire's edge.
 
The resort owners said in a Facebook post that "at this point it has been confirmed that there is `massive structural damage.' We are heartbroken and struggling with this news."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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