On July 29th at around 3:30 pm in Lower Lake California, a small township in a small county nestled in the mountains north of the Bay Area and hugging wine country, a fire started. This area is, of course, no stranger to wildfire. It is so commonplace that we know late spring to early fall as “fire season”. What was so different about this fire?

The early smoke plume as seen from our yard in neighboring Clearlake.
The early smoke plume as seen from our yard in neighboring Clearlake.
Approximately ten minutes after we first noticed smoke in the east, it had already tripled in size.
Approximately ten minutes after we first noticed smoke in the east, it had already tripled in size.

This fire moved fast! Faster than any other wildfire that I have seen in my 30 years of life in Northern California. Our beautiful state is still in the throes of an epic drought going into it’s 5th year. The dry brush, trees, and grass created the ideal fodder for this fire to spread more quickly than any of us imagined. Within half an hour, a second fire had started five miles closer to Lower Lake. This was a spot fire, started by a stray ember from the first, carried on the wind up the road and managing to trap several families in between. The firefighting efforts immediately diverted to helping save those trapped people, while the first fire was left to burn unchecked through largely uninhabited wild land. There is never a “good” time for a wildfire but this one could not have come at a worse time for our community.

The sky that greeted us the morning of the third day of the Rocky Fire.
The sky that greeted us the morning of the third day of the Rocky Fire.

Several of our firefighting resources were unavailable, having left the county to assist in the efforts of containing the Wragg Fire in Napa County, which had been threatening homes for almost two weeks. With our resources already spread thin, the firefighters had to make the decision to save lives and get the second fire contained first. Conditions were right, the Rocky Fire ran through the dry land, feeding its voracious appetite like some starving beast.

By the third full day of the fire burning, everything east of Hwy 53 had been placed under an advisory evacuation notice, while ash fell from a sky that glowed orange and obscured the sun to nothing but a shiny orange ball in the sky. It was quite an apocalyptic sight to behold.

A leaf skeleton that fell to the ground and retained its shape.
A leaf skeleton that fell to the ground and retained its shape. The orange ambiance made the day eerie and the ashes fell thick in some places.

The smoke blanketed the town of Clearlake. The fire had spread to monstrous proportions by that Saturday. Our small county had made national and even international news, as this fire gained enough ground to earn the title of the largest wildfire burning in the entire state of California. The governor declared a state of emergency, as well as our local government. Firefighters began pouring in from around the country to help battle this fierce blaze before it could destroy any more property or lives than it already had.

On that Sunday, August 2nd, our community pulled together in ways they never had before. Hundreds of people were displaced by evacuation orders, or by actual flames tearing through the landscape. The Red Cross came in and set up evacuation centers, and thousands of people who were not displaced stepped up to help their neighbors.

There was a Town Hall meeting called at the high school where the chief of Cal-Fire, the Lake County Sheriff and many other members of local government offices and emergency services gave a briefing of the situation. The word “unprecedented” was used many times by the Cal-Fire Chief. In his 40 year career as a firefighter with Cal-Fire, he had never seen a fire behave the way this one did.

The fire jumped Hwy 20, threatening a small rural community called Spring Valley and resulting in even more evacuations and destroyed homes and property. It began creating its own wind and weather, which combined with the rugged landscape to create a situation frightening and dangerous to the brave men and women engaging the monster in the firefight of a lifetime.

Pyrcocumulus cloud forming in the smoke of the Rocky Fire.
Pyrcocumulus cloud forming in the smoke of the Rocky Fire.

The fire is still burning as I write this blog post. It has, so far, spanned three counties. (Lake, Colusa and Yolo) It covers over a 100 square miles. The last update from Cal-Fire this morning, August 6th (one week after it began) it had burned 69,600 acres, destroyed 43 homes and 53 outbuildings. It has reached 30% containment and the firefighters have an estimate that it will be fully contained by August 13th. We are asked to remain vigilant however, as this fire is unpredictable and unprecedented. There are still over 6,000 structures threatened, although some areas are beginning the process of going back to their homes, many have no homes left to go back to.

We have been lucky so far however. No lives have been claimed by this beast of a wildfire, unlike the unfortunate and tragic incident in Modoc County where a firefighter from North Dakota was killed fighting a California wildfire.  We have firefighters from Oregon, Nevada and all over California here helping. There are also crews coming from as far away as Connecticut, Alabama and Georgia. The people of Lake County are overwhelmed by the help we are receiving the gratitude we all feel to those brave firefighters who leave home and travel far distances to protect the lives and property of complete strangers.

This fire is not out, we are not “out of the woods” yet, but we all have our fingers crossed and our minds focused on preparation and community.

Perimeter map from Cal-Fire for August 4th. Rocky Fire Perimeter.
Perimeter map from Cal-Fire for August 4th. Rocky Fire Perimeter.

UPDATE: 8-9-15

With the Rocky Fire now holding its acreage at around 70,000 acres burned, and containment just today reaching 85%, Lake County was breathing a collective sigh of relief today. That sigh, unfortunately, has turned into a gasp of horror as another fire started this afternoon around 3:30 (curious that this new fire started at the same time of day as the Rocky Fire).

The Jerusalem Fire smoke as seen around 4:30 pm from Clearlake CA. This was about 45 minutes after it was first reported.
The Jerusalem Fire smoke as seen around 4:30 pm from Clearlake CA. This was about 45 minutes after it was first reported.

The new fire was reported at 3:42 in the Jerusalem Valley area, about 7 miles northeast of Middletown, CA.  It was only a short time before the fire jumped from 100 acres to 200. Only three hours later the fire has reached 2,000 acres and zero containment.

The firefighters began diverting resources from the now mostly contained Rocky Fire to the new, fast spreading Jerusalem Fire. Mandatory evacuations were immediately issues for the area east of Spruce Grove Rd and the entire Jerusalem Valley area. People who only returned to their homes less than a week ago had to leave again. FireMap

I will update this post continually until this fire season ends or the state burns down, whichever comes first.

Update for September 12, 2015:

The fires in my little corner of NorCal are all out now. I have not been updating this article as faithfully as I might have, but last night I was made aware of a new wildfire just to the Southeast of Sacramento, near San Andreas. The Butte Fire started burning on September 9th at about 2:30 in the afternoon. Today, merely three days later, the fire has burned 64,728 acres and is at 10% containment, as of the last CalFire update this morning. This fire started and took off so quickly, it made me think back a month ago to the Rocky Fire that was burning its way through Lake County. Explosive fire conditions have created mandatory and advisory evacuation orders throughout Amador and Calaveras counties in Northern California.

The fire map below, provided by the National Weather Service out of Sacramento, shows the acreage burned for the Butte Fire and the two counties it has so far spanned.

ButteFiremap

Take a peek at this Google Map for active fires in California.

California Fire Map

On that map you can count at least ten active fires, although some of them state they are not considered CalFire incidents because they are burning through national forest land, so the Department of Forestry is monitoring those ones, which include:

  • Rough Fire – North of the Inyo National Forest
  • Gasquet Complex – Six Rivers National Forest
  • Nickowitz Fire – also in the Six Rivers National Forest
  • South Complex – Shasta Trinity National Forest
  • Fork Complex & River Complex – both also in Shasta Trinity National Forest area
  • Tenaya Fire – Yosemite National Forest

The Firepocalypse is still going strong across the Golden State, with no end in sight. At least we have El Nino to look forward to, with the possibility of bringing us enough rain to counter the epic drought we have been experiencing. However, with all of these burn scars, those rains will cause some pretty amazing landslides and floods, if it ever gets here.

Updated again on September 12th, 2015:

I spoke too soon about Lake County being out of the fire, so to speak. A new fire has started now near the Cobb community. Here is some pictures of the smoke cloud growing over the mountains separating the two sides of the county.

Valley Fire (3)

We shall see how this develops. Currently, Bottle Rock Road is closed and there is talk of closing Hwy 175. They are also beginning evacuations for the Cobb Mountain community.

Update for 9-13-15

The Valley Fire burned through the communities it threatened last night, leaving a trail of catastrophic destruction behind it as it engulfed homes and businesses along its path. It jumped Hwy 29 and caused a Shell gas station in Hidden Valley to explode, as well as several residential and commercial propane tanks, this being the country, an area where practically every home has a tank of propane somewhere.

The rumor mill is in full production of course. We have heard all kinds of things that turned out to be exaggerations of the truth or just outright untrue statements. But the community is pulling together all over again, much like they did during and after the Rocky and Jerusalem Fire’s, which turned out to be nothing more than practice runs for this devastating beast called the Valley Fire. The estimated number of total people evacuated is upward of 10k. The acreage of the fire, at the last update, was 50k with no containment. It is said to be burning in every direction entirely unchecked at this point.

Some sources are reporting that there has been at least one confirmed fatality so far, although CalFire officials are waiting on the Lake County Sheriff’s Office to confirm that.  I have lived in this area for 23 years, I grew up here, and I can tell you that this is the most devastating thing that has happened here in my lifetime, and I am sure that many of my neighbors would agree. Some of the rumors we heard were true, such as the fact that Harbin Hot Springs and Hoberg’s Resort were both completely lost. These historic places are some that I never visited in all the years I have lived here, I always took for granted that I would have a chance to go. Hoberg’s was built in the 1880’s, and was recently bought and restored, all gone.

One thing is certain, even this early into this local disaster. This will not be over, even when the fire stops burning and the smoke finally clears out. The damage here is far too great for things to just return to business as usual like they did after the last two major fires in July and August. This post I will continue updating as more information becomes available of course.

Links:

Cal-Fire Rocky Fire General Information Page      

Lake County News – Rocky Fire  

YouTube – Rocky Fire At Clear Lake:August 2015 

Advertisements