Lake County residents more willing to evacuate during raging wildfires

Lake County on Monday was shrouded in smoke amid new evacuations for the communities of Finley and Kelseyville. Wildfire raged on the ridges of the Hopland Grade well into the evening, and CalFire had little progress to share: 68,000 acres burned, more than double Sunday's acreage.

Two fires, the Ranch and River fires, broke out Friday afternoon in Mendocino County, but burned east and Lake County is feeling the brunt of them.

"We're not worried, we're going to have fun. And they have their own evacuation backpacks," said Nasbah Ben, securing her daughters, ages 2, 4, and 7, in their car seats. 

Evacuating Kelseyille, population 3,500, Ben was putting on a cheerful face for her kids.

But the back of her SUV was packed with everything she holds dear, and her husband's pickup truck was loaded with camping equipment. They have no idea what they'll come back to.
Even their toddler is somewhat aware. 

"She points up to the ashes and says fire, so she knows, they know what's going on," said Ben, "but they don't know how severe it is and we're doing everything to keep them happy while we're freaking out."  

Fire is churning through the rugged slopes of the Hopland Grade, sending huge plumes of smoke over Lake County. 

Each fire is only 5 percent contained. They are about 30 miles apart, not burning toward each other, but both encroaching on Clear Lake's western shore.

More than 10,000 structures are threatened. 

"We do feel a little bit surrounded, " said Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin, who noted 10 structures destroyed, 7 of them homes, numbers that will likely go higher. 

"I've seen some structures that have been burned to the ground," said Martin, "a complete loss and I know the family who owns one home, it's very tough."

In year's past, residents might have doubted that fire could roar from the hills down their main streets.
Then it happened in Lake County's southern communities: Middletown, Cobb, Lower Lake. 

"People are nervous, they're on edge, they're concerned and rightfully so, they should be very concerned," said Martin. 

Martin is concerned enough about his jail in Lakeport to empty it.

Nearly 300 inmates were bused out in an armed convoy with no fanfare late Sunday night.

The inmates are being housed in Alameda County's Santa Rita Jail temporarily.  

"We are seeing areas that have been threatened in the past but this time, those areas are burning," said Mendocino Complex Fire PIO Paul Lowethal, who is the Assistant Fire Marshal in Santa Rosa. 

First responders are finding more people willing to evacuate than in previous years, even before the advisory turned mandatory.

"People are taking it seriously," said Lowenthal, " and the fire behavior we've seen, the burn rates, the speed this fire moves, is why we're taking it seriously, and requiring evacuations."  

Kelseyville's Main Street was deserted by evening, except for occasional law enforcement cruisers, watching for looters. 

"We're fine, we'll come back and find everything still here, I'm optimistic about that," said Ben, as she pulled out of her driveway.

The couple has told their daughters they are going on vacation to the Mendocino Coast. 

"We are afraid, and we'd rather be cautious, so we're just going to go," said Ben, "and we told our house we'll be back." 

The Lake County Board of Supervisors will hold meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday at Clearlake city Hall to update those who have been evacuated. It will be streamed on Facebook here.