MENDOCINO COUNTY, Calif. (KTVU) - Update as of 11 a.m. Wednesday:
- The following areas in Lake County have been reduced to an Evacuation Advisory and may return to their homes:The communities of Upper Lakes, Nice, Lucerne, Pepperwood Grove, Paradise Valley, Glenhaven, and Clearlake Oaks.All lanes, east and westbound, of SR-20 are now openRoad Closures:Elk Mountain Road at Middle CreekClover Valley Road at Clover Drive (Upper Lake Cemetery)Bartlett Springs Road at SR 20 Old Long Valley Road at SR 20 New Old Long Valley Road at SR 20High Valley Road ½ mile north of High Valley Ranch Road
The Mendocino Complex fire is closing in on 300,000 acres, building on it's record-setting size, largest fire in California history.
Wednesday morning, Cal Fire updated its numbers on the River Fire ( 48,920 acres, 81% contained) and the Ranch Fire (251,000 acres, 46% contained.)
The two fires started just hours apart on July 27, and have ravaged Lake County ever since, with an estimated 75 homes destroyed.
"Happy? Yes. Do I thank God? Yes," said Ingrid Schreiber, as she turned the key to her front door for the first time since evacuating July 28.
Schreiber lives in North Lakeport, which received the all-clear Tuesday, along with Scotts Valley, Blue Lakes, Witter Springs, Saratoga Springs, and Bachelor Valley.
"Oh my goodness, it's a little bit dusty," said Schreiber, walking onto her patio deck overlooking Clear Lake.
"But this is so great, I don't mind cleaning up ash, as long as everything is here."
Shreiber admits to some nerves while away in Yolo County.
"I called the house every day, and we have our land line, so I figured, if the machine comes on, the house is still there."
She and her husband sympathize with other communities across the lake, still waiting to repopulate.
"I almost cried last night when I found out we could come back," said Charles Schreiber, " I was just overjoyed."
In more rural Bachelor Valley, residents who never left greeted those returning for the first time.
"I'll remember the noise of the fire," said Rye Gilley, "when it burns and you hear it hissing, the sound was unforgettable."
Gilley couldn't abandon his sheep, cows, and chickens, so he stayed, and worked alongside firefighters who swarmed Bachelor Valley when the flames did.
"We're blessed that we have our houses and everyone's safe," Gilley said, "and when you see the houses on the hill, and how close they came to burning, it's a miracle they didn't."
Gilley kept neighbor Ron Raetz apprised of the situation, while Raetz and his family evacuated to Reno.
Still, seeing his home of 40 years still standing, was emotional for Raetz.
"You just don't feel right until your feet are on the ground, so we're glad to be home, and glad to see our house still here," he said.
Seeing bulldozer tracks and his ladders propped against his roof, helped Raetz fill in the blanks.
"Firefighters came in here and put ladders up, and wet down the building, did everything," he marveled, "and they just were amazing."
With Lakeport back open for business, welcome signs were visible on Main Street, along with thank you signs for first responders.
But with little wind, Clear Lake and its surrounding communities sat under a thick pall of heavy smoke.
Air quality officials say conditions are as bad or worse than the air in Beijing, China.
"It's all bad, we haven't had good air quality since the fire started," said Douglas Gearhart, Air Pollution Control Officer for Lake County.
Gearhart wears a mask at all times when outdoors, and advises others to do so as well.
Air quality since the fires have wavered between "very unhealthy" and "hazardous".
On most days, it has reaching the top of the hazard scale, or even exceeded it, with 500 micro-grams of particulate considered extreme.
"We tested over 1200 micro-grams, so we were more than double the high end," explained Gearhart, " something we would never expect to see in Lake County or anywhere in California for that matter.
Gearhart cautions against prolonged exposure or outdoor exertion, because the particulates can trigger heart attack and stroke in those who are vulnerable.
On the Hopland Grade, KTVU saw three young men cycling the switchbacks, a ride they tackle often, Lakeport to the Highway 175 summit.
"My lungs are pumping a little, my legs are burning," said Connor Disney of Lakeport, "but I think it's fine, a lot better than sitting indoors I think."
In fact, as eager as some might be to resume outdoor exercise, it's healthier to wait until all haze has disappeared.
Air quality on some fire days has been so poor, the measuring devices became plugged and quit working after eight hours of sampling.
"During that eight hours, they were loaded with enough particulate, that it's equivalent to two years of normal air quality in Lake County," observed Gearhart.
Put another way, it would take 40 years of breathing Lake County air to equal the pollution emitted in less than two weeks.
Hazardous enough, several school districts plan to delay the start of school until mid-September because their campuses don't have adequate air filtration to safeguard students
The north and east shore communities from Upper Lake to Clearlake Oaks are still under mandatory evacuation.