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LNU Lightning Complex: 'Trying To Pick A Battle To Win Every Day'; Fire Advances In Yolo County; Vacaville Fire Victims Identified

MIDDLETOWN (CBS SF) -- The massive LNU Lightning Complex Fire jumped Highway 16 overnight and continued advancing into Yolo County, forcing Cal Fire officials to move additional resources into the Cache Creek area. Meanwhile, people in Lake, Napa, and Solano County had evacuation orders eased.

Cal Fire LNU operations chief Chris Waters told reporters at the Thursday morning update the two major areas of concern were near Middletown and along Highway 16 in the Cache Creek area.

"The highest priority is near Middletown," he said. "The key to getting that taken care of is getting a short, very difficult piece of (the fire) line established... The fire actually crossed Highway 16 (overnight) and made a run up the hill and started to head north. It's actually pretty established on the plateau above Highway 16. We currently are developing a plan and moving resources their right now."

Cal Fire Chief Sean Kavanaugh said that area has had several wildfires over the years and they were dusting off attack plans used successfully in those blazes.

"The fire got out on us," he told reporters. "That is a very tough section of Highway 16. There is a history of multiple fires there. [The fire] will likely make a little bit of a run on us...It's going to be a challenge for us over the next few days."

Kavanaugh said while progress is being made "we are trying to pick battle to win every day."

More evacuation orders eased

In Napa County Thursday, an evacuation order for the communities of Deer Park, Glass Mountain, Crystal Springs, and St. Helena Hospital were downgraded to an evacuation warning.

In Solano County, an evacuation order was reduced to a warning for residents who live in the areas west of Interstate 80 from Lyon Road to Vaca Valley Road, including all offshoot roads on Vaca Valley Road and the portion of Pleasants Valley Road. Areas north of 975 Deer Park Road, including the community of Angwin, remained under an evacuation order.

In Lake County, the sheriff's office lifted the evacuation warning for areas east of Old Long Valley, New Long Valley Rd. and north of Hwy. 20 to the Lake/Colusa County line, including all residents living in Spring Valley, Long Valley, and the Double Eagle subdivision.


Fire victims identified

The identities of two Vacaville fire victims have been released. As a wall of flames from the LNU Lightning Complex Fire approached his neighborhood, 64-year-old Leon Bone was likely overtaken by surprise and unable to escape the deadly conflagration, according to his cousin.

Bone was identified Wednesday as one of the two lives claimed by the blaze in the Vacaville area. The other has been identified as 82-year-old Douglas Mai.

Three others -- 70-year-old Mary Hintemeyer, her wheelchair-bound boyfriend Leo McDermott and his son, Tom -- died on their property in nearby Napa County.

Family members and neighbors say Bone was nearly blind, couldn't drive and didn't have a phone. He had lived on the property his entire life and refused to move when his parents died.

"He was probably taken by complete surprise," said his cousin, Daniel Bone. ""He was happy there and that's the only place he wanted to be."

Fires By early Thursday, the LNU Complex Lightning Fire had regained its place from the SCU Lightning Complex blazing in the South Bay as the state's second-largest wildfire outbreak in state history. The LNU complex stood at 368,868 acres, or 576 square miles, while the SCU Complex was at 368,671 acres. The largest fire in state history was the 2018 Mendocino Complex fires which burned 459,123 acres.

The fire complex was 33 percent controlled with its two biggest blazes -- Hennessey Fire currently at 311,222 acres and 33% contained and the Walbridge Fire at 55,353 acres and 19% contained. It has destroyed 1,080 homes and other buildings.

Evacuees begin to return

As re-population began in fire-charred Solano County Thursday, the valiant fight fire crews put up against flames racing through the canyons and valleys near Vacaville were apparent.

Along Cherry Glen Rd., only a small strip of grass with track marks in it separated the blackened hillsides from a ranch.

Among those counting their blessing today, 95-year-old World War II veteran George Parrish. Grass is blackened right up to the foundation of his home off of Pleasants Valley, but it's still standing. "Up to the building, up to the garage, burned trees on both sides, the back and the front," Parrish told KPIX5.

He and his wife Cathy think the slightly burned angel on the lawn watched over their property. "I think we're lucky. A lot of people weren't as fortunate," said Cathy Parrish.

Driving up Mount Vaca on along Gates Canyon Road, the devastation becomes more frequent along the winding single track road. Standing sentry outside one property, a melted tricycle near a burned-out bridge and the outline of a home on the dirt.

Not all of the tales in the rural hills north of Interstate 80 are ones of heartbreak. Homeowner Jasiel Nascimeo lost some of his fencing and that's it.

"I come here, I look at my house and there's no fire, oh my God," said Nascimeo. "I cried and everything."

Across the region, thousands of evacuated residents have been allowed to return to their homes, even as PG&E crews were still working to restore power Thursday.

"Our goal is to get everyone back to their homes and property in a safe and orderly manner," said Tom Ferrara, Solano County Sheriff. "We understand there may be hiccups along the way – and we want to make things as smooth as possible for everyone involved – and we greatly appreciate your patience."

The re-population phase in Solano County will include residents who live in the areas west of Interstate 80 from Lyon Road to Vaca Valley Road including Vaca Valley Road. Gates Canyon Road will remain closed.

Officials said residents will need to visit the County's Re-entry Center, located at the Mission Church, 6391 Leisure Town Road in Vacaville, prior to returning home. A valid form of ID, or proof of residency, will be required, including a driver's license, car registration or a utility bill. Anyone who cannot show proof of residency will still be helped, the process may just take a little longer.

For many, there was great relief as their residences were not touched by the flames.

However, for others, the return was marked by sadness and a great sense of loss as their homes and possessions had been reduced to piles of ash and twisted metal.

Among those devastated neighborhoods was the Spanish Flat Mobile Villa on the western shore of Lake Berryessa.

It was only a few weeks ago that children ran up and down the street, riding their bicycles. Now, there is total destruction. Once a tight-knit community, now destroyed and disintegrated after the Hennessey Fire roared through. Home after home after home, burned to ash.

Dan Davenport got his first look at the remains of his home Wednesday.

"I could tell when I left here, it was not going to make it," Davenport said. "The loss of everything. Pictures of my ex-wife I'll never see again."

In the middle of all the devastation, just one home survived. Katie Reed was still trying to understand what happened.

"I feel I should have gone down like everybody else. I feel like I shouldn't have been here at all," said a tearful Reed. "My house should be gone! My car didn't burn. I don't understand like, everything else is gone but not that. I don't know. I feel terrible. I don't know…"

Reed has two children, is a single mom, and is grateful everyone escaped unhurt. She remembers running for her life.

"I've never been so scared in my life. I've been through some traumatic things in my life but I, I thought I was going to die," said Reed. "The flames were up to my windows in my lifted truck, I have a six-inch lift on it and I thought my windows were going to break because it was so hot."

Reed's children are staying with friends while she collects their clothes, toys and essentials. She says the neighborhood used to be full of kids.

Meanwhile, crews battling the Walbridge Fire continued to work with parks officials to protect Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve and the beloved Colonel Armstrong tree.

A giant coastal redwood roughly 1,400 years old, the Colonel Armstrong tree was successfully defended after flames moved into the park Monday, Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls said. Members of the public had voiced concern about the preserve during a news conference.

Crews were laying hose to ensure that flames don't move down the slope and into the 805-acre park's floor, Nicholls said Wednesday.

In the park, he said, the fire was low-intensity, limited to "roughly 4-inch-tall flames" and moving through dead and decomposing organic materials: "as a whole, a very healthy and productive fire."

© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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