A pair of explosive wildfires burning across Lake County raged further into their second week Saturday, forcing new evacuations as dry and windy weather fueled growth in the blazes, now one of the largest infernos in California history.
The Ranch and River fires swelled to more than 229,000 acres by Saturday evening, up from 157,450 acres on Friday, with most of the growth in national forest and lightly settled land north and east of Clear Lake. Still, mandatory evacuation orders now stretch across three counties: Lake, Mendocino and Colusa, where a total of about 17,000 people have been told to flee.
Known as the Mendocino Complex fires, they currently rank as the sixth-largest conflagrations ever in California, just behind the Zaca fire that burned in Santa Barbara County in 2007. The Ranch and River fires have destroyed 104 structures, including 55 homes, and continue to threaten 15,300 more, Cal Fire reported.
“The winds have not been our friend today,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “The growth of the Ranch fire has floored all of us.”
The Ranch fire alone grew by 66,000 acres since Friday, and stood at 181,343 acres Saturday evening. By comparison, the four largest North Bay fires last October — the Nuns, Atlas, Tubbs and Redwood Valley fires — burned 181,510 acres.
The Ranch and River fires ignited July 27 about 14 miles apart in Mendocino County, the Ranch fire east of Ukiah and the River fire near Hopland. The cause for both fires is under investigation.
Gov. Jerry Brown on Saturday requested President Donald Trump declare a major disaster to bolster the emergency response and government assistance for wildfires burning across at least four counties in the state: Lake, Mendocino, Napa and Shasta.
The pair of local blazes are among 17 major fires burning across the state.
“Battling these relentless fires requires a Herculean effort,” Brown said in his request. “Additional federal assistance is needed immediately to reduce the direct threat to public health and safety.”
The disaster request for Shasta County was approved, Brown’s office said late Saturday. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is reviewing the requests for Lake, Mendocino and Napa counties “on an expedited basis as preliminary damage assessments continue,” the governor’s office said.
Saturday’s strong winds, warm temperatures and low humidity fueled extreme fire behavior in some parts of Lake County, with flame lengths as tall as 300 feet. Winds gusted up to 40 mph, said Michelle Mead, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.
“It’s obviously not good,” Mead said. “It allows the fire to expand because it’s got more energy.”
A huge plume of smoke was clearly visible from most of Sonoma County, including Highway 101, prompting numerous calls to local emergency dispatchers. Many callers worried the fire was “right on top of their hill,” a dispatcher said.
Temperatures were forecast to hit the low- to mid-50s overnight, Mead said. Winds were also expected to calm before cooler and more moist air moves in today, raising humidity — “a good thing for firefighting purposes,” Mead said.
Much of the Ranch fire’s growth Saturday was east toward the Indian Valley area, said Cal Fire spokesman Will Powers. The blaze has entered the burn scar of the Pawnee fire, which was contained less than a month ago.