Using fire to fight fire, crews ignited controlled burns Monday to sear brush from the path of a ravenous blaze near Clearlake that has devoured more than 62,000 acres of woodlands and forced thousands of residents to flee.
The Rocky fire, spanning parts of Lake, Colusa and Yolo counties, is the largest and most challenging of 20 active wildfires in California. Many broke out amid a week of scorching temperatures and lightning storms that ignited more than 300 blazes in numerous counties.
On Monday, fire officials said the Rocky fire still threatened more than 5,000 houses. Its unpredictability has forced authorities to issue mandatory or advisory evacuation notices for more than 13,000 residents. Twenty-four houses and 26 outbuildings have been destroyed.
Residents of the Lake County community of Spring Valley were the latest to be evacuated, with officials knocking on doors late Sunday .
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Pat and Barbara Jiron grabbed important documents, treasured belongings and their beloved Chihuahuas, Little Bear and Coko, and drove to Middletown High School, where the American Red Cross had opened a shelter.
On Monday, as Pat Jiron, 77, worked on a few crossword puzzles and Barbara Jiron, 67, held a book in her lap, they reflected on the adrenaline they felt in escaping the fire.
“We drove up to the top of a hill and could see flames shooting 20, 30, 40 feet high in several spots,” Pat Jiron said. “It was so black – like a thunderhead.”
Firefighting helicopters hovered overhead as he spoke a day later. He looked afar at a growing plume of gray smoke and said, “Oh, God, that doesn’t look good.”
The Rocky fire, which began Wednesday afternoon east of the Lake County town of Lower Lake, has forced the closure of a major intrastate connector, Highway 20 between Interstate 5 in Williams and Highway 53 in Lake County.
On Monday afternoon, several spot fires leaped Highway 20 near the Walker Ridge area of Colusa County as a vast deployment of firefighters and materiel responded. “We’re working feverishly to contain it to that area,” said Steve Swindle, a Ventura County fire official acting as a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
As Cal Fire officials said the blaze was only 12 percent contained Monday, spokesman Daniel Berlant said crews were creating dozens of backfires in the hopes of destroying fuel in the path of the blaze “so the punch of the fire is slowed down enough to allow our crews to get in there and for our air tankers to drop retardant and water.”
Crews got a break from the weather Monday as temperatures in the Clear Lake region dropped to highs in the upper 80s with lows near 70. Yet the stubborn fire continued to burn in multiple directions and threatened houses on its western flank – despite coastal winds that normally would have pushed flames to the east.
“A fire of this size starts to create its own weather pattern,” Berlant said, adding: “There’s a lot more firefighting left on this fire. It’s definitely not done yet.”
More than 3,100 of the 9,000 firefighters deployed on California wildfires are battling the Rocky fire.
Elsewhere, fire crews in Humboldt County struggled to contain nearly 2,700 acres of wildfires resulting from as many as 70 lightning strikes last week. The Humboldt fires, only 15 percent contained, have destroyed one home and one outbuilding, threatened commercial timberland worth $15 million and forced 240 residents to evacuate.
On Monday, Rocky fire evacuee Vicki Estrella, 64, shared a roast beef sandwich with her large white English pointer, Jesse, at the Middletown High School shelter. Meanwhile, she wondered about the fate of her two llamas, which she left at her 1.5-acre property Sunday night.
She and her husband, John Estrella, unsuccessfully tried to coax the animals, which they raise for wool, into a trailer before fleeing the fire. But, she fretted, “Llamas are very aloof. They don’t obey you. I called and they didn’t come.”
Her husband was trying to get back to the property Monday to check on the llamas and feed them. “They don’t do well in the heat,” Vicki Estrella said.