The Fires

Photo credit, Bob Minenna

The summer of 2015 will not be soon forgotten in Lake County. Along with the rest of Northern California, the county is suffering through the fourth year of a severe drought. We felt somewhat blessed that Clear Lake, the recreational lifeblood of the county has relatively more water than other lakes in the State, due to two large storms last winter. This does not extend to the dry conditions of our surrounding countryside however. 

Much of the rural portion of the county is covered with chemise and buck brush. Those areas in the southeastern part of the county had not had a major fire since the 1960’s, resulting in very heavy fuel loads. With the drought these areas were tinder dry. The mountain areas in the southwestern portion of the county also are suffering from the dry conditions and exacerbated by pine beetle damage to many trees. Conditions were prime for disaster.

ROCKY

On July 29, 2015 disaster first struck. A structure fire was reported at 3:29 P.M. on Rocky Creek Road off of Morgan Valley Road approximately 15 miles east from the town of Lower Lake. Further complicating response was an unstable bridge for heavy fire equipment to cross. By the time units from Lake County Fire and CalFire could reach the property, the fire, driven by high erratic winds, had spread well beyond the original structure. 

The fire spread rapidly through the afternoon and was threatening the eastern outskirts of Lower Lake the second day. Winds also drove the fire to the north and east, eventually reaching State Hwy’s 16 and 20. Winds also drove the fire to the northwest to within two miles of the eastern edge of Clearlake and its 15,000 residents. Major effort by fire fighters and equipment from across the state was expended in protecting both Lower lake and Clearlake. Aided by timely westerly winds, the fire stopped its westward advance. 

It did however make a run north, jumping State Hwy 20 and burning into Double eagle Ranch, a rural residential development and threatening the much larger residential area of Spring Valley. A major weather change finally allowed fire crews to gain 100% containment on August 13, 2015. 
In total, the Rocky Fire burned across 69,438 acres. It destroyed 43 residences, 53 outbuilding and damaged 8 others. Additionally, it caused major damage to power and utility lines along Morgan Valley Road and destroyed many miles of livestock fencing. At the peak, more than 3,200 firefighters battled this fire. Thankfully no lives were lost.

JERUSALEM

While the Rocky Fire was winding down with firefighters being reduced to about 1,200, many doing mitigation work, a fire was reported in a creek bed off Jerusalem Valley Road. This area is located approximately 6 miles southeast of Lower Lake and approximately 2 miles northeast from Hidden Valley Lake, a subdivision with a population of several thousand people. The fire, driven by northeasterly winds, fortunately burned generally to the northeast away from Hidden
Valley. Crews from the Rocky Fire transitioned to this fire. The fire eventually burned into the south line of the Rocky Fire and was 100% contained on August 24, 2015. It burned a total of 25,118 acres. It destroyed 6 residences and 21 outbuildings. Again, thankfully no lives were lost.

VALLEY

After the Jerusalem Fire things began to return to normal in the South County although there was another small fire, 22 acres and one home destroyed, on Jerusalem Grade Road near the ignition point of the Jerusalem Fire. That changed at 1:24 P.M. on September 12, 2015. Gusty high winds were blowing in a southeasterly direction. A small fire was reported on High valley Road, a short street off Bottle Rock Road a couple miles west of the community of Cobb.
A heli-attack crew was dispatched from nearby Boggs CalFire Station. The fire was initially reported at about two acres burning in grass. The four man crew was dropped off down a road from the fire and immediately began to make their way up to the fires location. From this point on things went horribly wrong.

As the crew reached the fire, winds suddenly gusted blowing the fire up into a raging inferno. The crew then tried to reach an open area but were turned back by “a wall of fire”. They were forced to deploy their emergency shelters but still suffered burns on their hands and faces. The helicopter lost sight of the crew in the ensuing heavy smoke and could not drop water to slow the fire. Three nearby CalFire personnel were able to get to them in a pick-up and carry them to safety and evacuation by air ambulance. Thus began the Valley Fire, the third most destructive wildfire in California history.

The fire moved initially in an easterly direction passing on both the north and south sides of Cobb. It moved down State Hwy 175 through Anderson Springs towards Middletown and northerly through Hobergs and the southerly edge of the Loch Lomond area and on towards Siegler Springs. And, it advanced eastward over Boggs Mountain through Harbin Springs and onward toward Hidden Valley Lake. Within 8 hours it had burned through parts of both Middletown and Hidden Valley Lake.

The fire burned so ferociously with such high wind speeds that air tankers could not effectively drop retardant ahead of the wall of fire that advanced down off the mountain. Fire fighters as well as law enforcement first responders concentrated their efforts on evacuating people from the area in front of the advancing fire.

The fire was declared 100% contained on October 6, 2015. At its peak there were 4,200 personnel assigned to the fire. The final total is 76,067 acres burned. The destruction was so wide spread that it took weeks before a reasonably accurate count of the loss of structures could be completed. CalFire’s last published list states that 1,958 structures were destroyed including 1,280 single family residences plus 27 multifamily structures (the County says 70 apartment units), 66 commercial properties and 585 outbuildings. Additionally 41 homes, 7 commercial properties and 45 outbuildings have been damaged. And, sadly, four people lost their life in this fire.

In total, the loss to the folks in these communities of southern Lake County from the three fires has been devastating, almost beyond comprehension. Statistically the acreage burned total was 170,623 acres. To put it into perspective, that represents approximately 20% of the landmass of the entire county. Living units lost were 1,399 and total structures 2,081. Four firefighters were injured and, most tragically, 4 people lost their lives.

Now comes the monumental task of rebuilding, both property and lives. The LARCA Fire Relief Fund has been created by the four Rotary Clubs of Lake County to help with that task. Through your generous donations we have begun that process.