Firefighters Battle Mendocino Complex Fires As Evacuated Residents Anxiously Watch
LAKEPORT (CBS SF) -- The evacuated residents of Lakeport anxiously watch and wait. The town has been spared, so far, but the threat of fire and destruction remain.
Lakeport is center stage in this incendiary drama. The entire town with a population of about 5000 was evacuated Sunday because flames were moving toward the community. The raging fire that threatened the town Sunday night has diminished considerably.
Mike Von Rosenberg evacuated from Lakeport. He's at the Lower Lake high school shelter.
"Looks a lot better...looks like they're getting a big time handle on it and everything," said Von Rosenberg. "God bless those guys...maybe they'll get a few medals."
"We understand that people are eager to get back in," said Cal Fire spokesman Paul Lowenthal. "But understand that we've got a lot of unburned fuels out in this area. We've got a lot of potential for wind shifts. We've got to make sure it's going to hold before we allow people to come back home."
"This portion of the fire is not as active as it was 24 hours ago," added Lowenthal. "But that doesn't mean we're out of the woods yet."
Lowenthal points out that the area near Lakeport is just one segment of two large fires.
The River fire moved southward on Monday and dangerously close to two more communities that had to be evacuated. Monday afternoon, the evacuation areas for these so-called Mendocino Complex Fires expanded with the Lake County Sheriff's Office issuing mandatory orders for Kelseyville and Finley.
The mandatory evacuation notice was announced shortly before 3 p.m.
The mandatory evacuation area is north of the Lake-Sonoma-Mendocino County Line, east of Highland Springs Road, south of the Lake and West of Bottle Rock Road and Clear Lake State Park. Authorities said the areas of Soda Bay, Riviera Heights, Buckingham, Riviera West and the Clearlake Riviera were not currently part of the mandatory evacuation order.
The evacuation of Kelseyville and Finley means the three evacuation shelters set up in that area now have to be evacuated as well. All of those people were being sent to the shelter at Lower Lake High School.
"It's terrifying. We stand here and we can watch the fires break out here and over here and the big tankers are coming and dropping," said Kelseyville shelter evacuee Debbie Vallis.
There were already 500 people staying at the shelter at Lower Lake High School. With the Kesleyville shelters closing, that means at least a hundred more.
"I received word from headquarters to expect those folks to come over here, so we're getting prepared for that," said Mo Ghandehari with the American Red Cross.
For Lavonne Moore and her family, it was the second time they've had to evacuate in as many days.
"It was kind of a surprise, because I didn't think it was going to be like that. I thought we were just going to go and stay," said Moore.
But despite repeated evacuations and past experiences with wildfires, many people KPIX spoke to said they wouldn't move away from Lake County.
"A lot of people here have been burnt out six and seven times from the Santa Rosa fires, the Pawnee Fire. It's a completely different universe up here in Lake County. We like Lake County," said Vallis.
Cal Fire Division Chief Charlie Blankenheim said he expected significant growth as the fire pushed into the Mendocino National Forest.
As of Monday night, the River Fire had grown to 23,411 acres and was 5 percent contained, while the Ranch Fire had spread to 45,076 acres and was also 5 percent contained.
Lake County officials said Monday about 14,000 people are under evacuation orders. Another 1,000 have been displaced in neighboring Mendocino County.
Among those watching the fight Monday were a handful of Bay Area lawmakers, including Congressman Jared Huffman.
"This is an incredibly difficult fire. The concern now is that you can feel the wind blowing in from the northwest," said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael). "You see how black it is, the fuel load is just tremendous."
Along about 10 miles of Highway 175, crews could often only watch as flames exploded across the landscape.
As expected, the fire burned exactly where the wind wanted it to. By early afternoon, it had crossed over Highway 175, burning to the south, and east.
The scene of blackened hillsides and skeletal remains of burned trees was all too familiar to some.
"It's like a rewind and we're going through this again. It's pretty horrible," said Assemblymember Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg).
"This feels a little familiar for those of us that went through the fires last October," said Huffman.
So what was on his mind as he watched another wildfire tear through this portion of Northern California?
"We're just here to make sure that all the resources that can be available are made available, because there is a lot of competition for them because fires are raging around the state," said Huffman.
Meanwhile, residents who had already evacuated from their homes in Lakeport were trying to remain hopeful that the gradually converging Ranch and River Fires would spare their neighborhoods.
Jarrett Williams was a Red Cross volunteer for two Gulf Coast hurricanes. Now with flames bearing down on his Lakeport area home, he says it feels strange to be on the receiving end.
"It's weird, being told to evacuate after helping people evacuate," he told KPIX 5 as he leads against his truck at an evacuation area. "But I know enough to listen...I thought about being nervous about the home, but you can't replace life, you can replace stuff."
Evacuee Michelle Mata also had an uneasy feeling as she glance toward the large smoke cloud announcing the fire's approach.
"We had 5 police cars yesterday saying mandatory evacuations, get out," she said.
But still some of her neighbors chose to stay behind.
"Leaving some of our people behind that wouldn't leave their property was hard," she told KPIX 5. "They're in like their 80s."
All fellow evacuee Marlyna Martin could do early Monday was hope and pray that a massive firestorm approaching her North Lakeport neighborhood will spare her family home.
Martin and her family are among the 7500 residents of Lakeport and the surrounding area driven from their homes over the weekend by the advancing flames and destruction of the Mendocino Complex Fire.
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After receiving the mandatory evacuation call, they loaded up all their vehicles, including their giant RV they call a land yacht, and headed to Kelseyville.
"It's horrible," she told KPIX 5. "My daughter lost her home in the Valley Fire almost three years ago. So it (the latest evacuation order) is pretty traumatic."
On Highway 175 just west of town, firefighters have dug firebreak lines with heavy equipment in the hopes of slowing the raging wildfire.
The Mendocino Complex Fire is actually two blazes -- the River and Ranch fires -- and in both Lake and Mendocino counties. Both started on Friday. The River Fire six miles north of Hopland and the Ranch Fire eight miles northeast of Ukiah.
Together, they have destroyed at least six homes, were threatening more than 10,000 structures, forced the evacuation of a hospital in Lakeport and charred almost 56,000 acres of mostly scrub and wildlands.
Mendocino County Undersheriff Matthew Kendall said about 1,000 residents had been ordered from their homes in his county. Meanwhile, in Lake County residents of Lakeport, population 5,000, were ordered to leave Sunday night. Two other towns with about 5,000 people were also under mandatory evacuation.
Weather remained a factor as firefighters were being challenged by hot, dry and windy conditions. Fire officials also said fire crews were spread thin because of other major fires throughout the region.
The Alameda County Sheriff's Office has accepted 286 inmates who had to be evacuated from Lake County, according to authorities.
Sheriff's officials said their deputies and deputies from the Lake County Sheriff's Office "worked throughout the night to safely transfer the inmates to our Santa Rita Jail" in Dublin.
"This was a seamless transfer and the inmates are safe at our jail," sheriff's officials said. "We will continue to do our part to support California communities suffering from devastating wildfires."
Sheriff's officials said, "As we have seen, Lake County and other northern counties have been devastated and are hurting. It is our job to help them during this tragic time."
Sheriff's officials commended Lake County sheriff's deputies "who continued to work despite their own homes and families being threatened."
Many residents remained in Lakeport on Sunday evening including Shellie Green, who was using a garden hose to water down her yard and house.
"Got grandma out, got my mom and dad out,' she told KPIX 5. "I think we are going to be all right. I don't think it's going to come down to the lake. We're packed and ready (if they have to flee)."
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